To establish a charge of conversion, one must first establish that the property in contest is legally theirs, and, more importantly, was legally theirs at the time of the alleged conversion. The claimant must then prove that the defendant violated his or her property rights intentionally, and – in doing so – brought about ascertainable damages resulting from the alleged conversion.
The tort of conversion is not to be confused with its criminal counterpart, the charge of larceny or theft. Conversion stipulates a deliberate violation/misuse of one's property rights, while larceny essentially means to take property of another, unlawfully as one's own. In a conversion case, misuse is the gist while in a larceny case, acquisition and possession is key.
Misuse of property is a broad term which may be applicable to a variety of acts. Acts must be intentional, but do not necessarily need to have wrongful intent to be considered conversion. Conversion tort may not arise from execution of government mandated duties. Law enforcement personnel may commandeer property for official use with just cause, as well as force entry into areas possibly resulting in structural damage to homes, vehicles, etc.
Actions following a government or private contract with the owner are also not considered conversion when the owner's property is used in terms set forth by the contract. Common disputes over conversion include trees severed and converted to lumber. Cutting trees for lumber is not conversion if the service is rendered via contract with the property owner.
Conversely, if lumber is cut outside the specified area, or without contract on private property, conversion charges apply, as do possible trespassing charges. Lumber is utility wood converted from severed trees; trees constitute private property. Such a conversion without the owner's permission is considered misuse.
Recipients of a conversion tort may be able to take several defenses to dispute the charge. Abandonment is a complete defense to allegations of conversion. To constitute abandonment, the defendant must assert and prove that the property in question was abandoned without a legal owner before he or she took it for his or her own use. Contact a property lawyer to consult your case.
Consent to the conversion is another complete defense. If the owner agrees to let the defendant use his or her property implicitly or via contract, the defendant is not liable for conversion charges. The defendant may be exempt from conversion charges if the assets owned by the plaintiff were given to him or her for purposes of fraud. If the plaintiff gives the defendant assets for the purpose of avoiding creditors or payment of debts, he or she may not sue the defendant for misuse, as fraud is not protected by property rights.