The civil equivalent to criminal theft is called conversion. Conversion is defined as “unauthorized assumption in exercise of the right of ownership over goods or personal chattels, belonging to another, to the alteration of their condition or the exclusion of the owner’s rights. Any unauthorized act which deprives an owner of his property permanently or for an indefinite time.”
The elements of conversion as laid out by the Minnesota Supreme Court are as follows: 1) property is owned by the plaintiff and 2) there is conversion by the defendant. The Minnesota Supreme Court has further defined conversion as “an act of willful interference with the chattel, done without lawful justification, by which a person entitled thereto is deprived of use and possession.” Larson v. Archer-Daniels-Midland Co., 32 N.W.2d 649, 650 (Minn. 1948).
Element One: An Act of Willful Interference without Legal Justification
The first element of conversion is an act of willful interference without legal justification. In order to prove the first element of conversion, the plaintiff must show evidence that the defendant’s action represented an exercise of the right of complete ownership and dominion over the property to the total exclusion of the rights of the plaintiff, or some other act done that destroys the property or changes its character or in some way deprives the owner of it permanently for an indefinite period of time. Intent is necessary in order to satisfy element one. In other words, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant had an intentional exercise of dominion or control over the chattel. The plaintiff will not succeed on a conversion claim if there is merely evidence of negligence without any inference of intent.
A classic example is the case McKinley v. Flaherty, 390 N.W.2d 30 (Minn. App. 1986). In that case, the plaintiff stored some personal property at an apartment that her friend rented. The friend was eventually evicted from the apartment. However, the friend left the plaintiff’s property behind after she left. The plaintiff attempted to contact the defendant landlord numerous times in order to get her property back. Over the course of two years, the plaintiff wrote 35 letters and called 25 times in order to retrieve her property. The plaintiff finally sued the defendant for conversion and the Court of Appeals agreed, holding that because the defendant was in possession of the property for over two years, “he has clearly converted the property.”
Element Two: The Plaintiff Must Own the Property that is Converted
In order for the plaintiff to be successful in any conversion claim, there must be evidence that the plaintiff has a right to the property that is allegedly to be converted. Any kind of special interest or limited title is not going to be enough to sustain a conversion claim. The advantage to plaintiffs when they are bringing a conversion claim is that the property that they claim is converted does not necessarily have to be tangible property. The Minnesota Supreme Court has held that tangible property along with intangible property can be converted.
Defenses to Conversion
There are a number of defenses to a conversion claim by a plaintiff. First, a plaintiff cannot recover for conversion if he or she had knowledge of or consented to the conversion, and the consent from the plaintiff doesn’t have to be verbal direct consent. Consent can be inferred from the plaintiff’s actions. Another defense available to a defendant is if the defendant shows that the property in the defendant’s possession was given to the defendant by the plaintiff as compensation.
Not considered a defense to a conversion claim is any defense that the defendant did not have possession of the property at the time the action was commenced. In other words, even if the defendant returned the chattel or property in question, it doesn’t necessarily erase a defendant’s liability under a conversion cause of action.
Damages are an essential part of any conversion claim, meaning if a plaintiff has no damages it obliterates any conversion lawsuit. In a conversion lawsuit, damages are determined by examining the value of the property at the time of conversion plus interest from that time. McKinley v. Flaherty, 390 N.W.2d 31 (Minn. App. 1986). Interestingly, the point of any conversion claim is not necessarily for the plaintiff to regain possession of the property, but to obtain damages for the property’s actual conversion. The plaintiff does not have to accept the return of the property as a settlement to any conversion claim. The plaintiff can still recover actual damages even if the goods or property are returned to the plaintiff.
The Statute of Limitations
The statute of limitations for a conversion claim is six years from the time of any wrongful act over the plaintiff’s property. Minn. Stat. § 541.05. If fraud is involved in a conversion claim, meaning that a conversion is fraudulently concealed from the plaintiff, then the statute of limitations does not begin to run until the plaintiff discovers the fraud.