29 Cal.2d 541 (1946)

An important torts law case that illustrates the distinction between the torts of conversion and trespass to chattels.

Plaintiff and defendant were tenants in common of certain premises.  Defendant and her agent took possession of the premises, excluded plaintiff, and placed his personal property in storage.

Plaintiff sued defendants and her agent for, inter alia, conversion of his personal property and trespass.  Although defendants had removed plaintiff’s chattels, plaintiff made no demand for their return, and defendants did not make use of the goods but merely held them in storage and eventually informed plaintiff how he could recover them.

Based on the foregoing facts, the court held that defendants’ conduct did not amount to “a substantial interference with possession to the extent of a conversion.” Before making that ruling, the court first explained the elements of conversion and applied it to conduct that does and does not constitute conversion:

Stated generally, “conversion is any act of dominion wrongfully exerted over another’s personal property in denial of or inconsistent with his rights therein.”  The liability of one in possession of real property for the conversion of personal property which he finds upon it, depends, in most cases, upon a determination of whether the conduct of the defendant indicates an assumption of control or ownership over the goods. It is clear that, under  some circumstances, refusal of one in possession of real property to permit, upon demand, the owner of chattels which were left there to remove his goods, constitutes conversion. However, every failure to deliver is not such a serious interference with the owner’s dominion that the defendant should be required to pay the full value of the goods. And the act of taking possession of a building and locking it does not, of itself, constitute a conversion of the personal property therein.  Nor does the permission of the possessor of the realty by which personal property is allowed to remain upon the premises make him liable for the goods.  To establish a conversion, it is incumbent upon the plaintiff to show an intention or purpose to convert the goods and to exercise ownership over them, or to prevent the owner from taking possession of his property. Thus, in Poor v. Oakman, supra, a person rightfully took possession of a building and put a new lock on the door. He knew that the owner of some furniture then in the building had a key to the old lock. It was held that, in the absence of any evidence tending to prove a claim to the furniture, or any act which hindered the owner from removing it, as the contest was for the possession of the building, the possessor of the real estate was not liable for conversion of the furniture. Substantially the same rule was applied in Lawyers’ Mtg. Inv. Corp. v. Paramount Laundries, supra, where the court decided that the act of taking possession of a building and keeping it locked did not, of itself, constitute a conversion of the machinery in it. And ordinarily the courts have declared that one rightfully in possession of real property who removes, to a warehouse or other place, chattels found on it belonging to another, does not assert ownership or control over them to the extent of making him liable for conversion.

(Id. at 549-551, citations omitted.)

Applying the foregoing rules controlling the standard of proof for conversion, the court held that the plaintiff did not present evidence to establish a cause of action for conversion:

In the present case, the court found only that Mrs. Kroenert and Chapman “took and carried away all the personal property and effects” of Zaslow, such taking being without his consent, express or implied. Admittedly, what Chapman did in this regard was to place the goods in storage; there is no evidence tending to prove that either he or Mrs. Kroenert otherwise exerted any dominion over Zaslow’s personal property in denial of or inconsistent with his rights. If, upon demand for the return of the chattels, they had prevented the removal of the goods, such acts would have constituted evidence of a conversion. But here the controversy between the parties concerned the occupancy of the house; no demand was made for the return of the personal property. While there is no evidence showing any conduct amounting to conversion, there is proof that Chapman, as the agent of Mrs. Kroenert, acted as custodian of the goods, recognizing Zaslow’s complete title and right to them. The defendants did not use the goods. About a month and one-half after Mrs. Kroenert, by Chapman, took possession of the realty, she stated in a letter either received by or shown to Zaslow, that he could secure possession of his personal property by applying at the attorney’s office. Zaslow neither said nor did anything in response thereto.

(Id. at 551.)

However, the court held that defendants’ conduct did constitute trespass to chattels and, therefore, plaintiff was entitled to recover for actual damages to the chattels or for the loss of their use:

Where the conduct complained of does not amount to a substantial interference with possession or the right thereto, but consists of intermeddling with or use of or damages to the personal property, the owner has a cause of action for trespass or case, and may recover only the actual damages suffered by reason of the impairment of the property or the loss of its use. (See Prosser on Torts, pp. 102, 103, 107; Rest., Torts, §§ 217, 218, 219.) As Zaslow was a cotenant and had the right of possession of the realty, which included the right to keep his personal property thereon, Chapman’s act of placing the goods in storage, although not constituting the assertion of ownership and a substantial interference with possession to the extent of a conversion, amounted to an intermeddling. Therefore, Zaslow is entitled to actual damages in an amount sufficient to compensate him for any impairment of the property or loss of its use.

(Id. at 551-552.)

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