Friday, March 11, 2011

Theft is conversion in PA civil law

In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, if someone steals from you or takes control of your property without your consent, we commonly call it stealing or theft. And it’s typical to think that your only recourse if someone takes your stuff without your permission is to call the police and pursue a criminal complaint. But Pennsylvania also considers this a personal injury. In civil law, the unlawful taking of another’s property is called conversion and you can recover money damages if it happens to you.

Conversion is when someone deprives or interferes with another’s right of property in, or use or possession of, a chattel (personal property that is movable, as distinguished from real property i.e. land and improvements), without the owner’s consent and without lawful justification. Conversion can result only from an act intended to affect chattel. Specific intent by the defendant is not required. But an intent to exercise control over the goods against the plaintiff’s rights is needed to establish a claim of conversation. In addition to personal property, money may be the subject of conversion. Shonberger v. Oswell, 530 A.2d 112, 114 (Pa. Super. 1987).

A plaintiff has a cause of action in conversion if he or she was in possession of personal property when the defendant exercised unlawful control over it.

In addition to compensatory damages (damages fixing the loss) Conversion allows for the imposition of punitive damages. In Pennsylvania, “punitive damages will be allowed for torts committed willfully, maliciously, or so recklessly as to indicate wanton disregard for the rights of the party injured.” Restatement (Second) of Torts s. 908(1)(2). Further, courts in Pittsburgh and across Pennsylvania, require an examination of “the act itself together with all the circumstances including the motive of the wrongdoers and the relatiosn between the parties. Unlike establishing a claim of conversion, the state of mind of the defendant is vital in determining whether to impose punitive damages.

Check out my other articles on Punitive Damages in PA here and here.

There are a lot of different ways that conversion can occur. Obviously if someone takes your things and won’t return them that is conversion. But conversion can also arise in situations in which someone is owed something by another- this could be insurance proceeds, something purchased from a vendor, money in possession by a bank, estate proceeds, the list is long.

So keep in mind that if someone takes control of personal property that is rightfully yours, you have options beyond calling the police. Share this post :
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