Under California law, conversion is a civil cause of action that applies when a person unlawfully and without permission takes or interferes with your possession of your property.
You can bring a claim for
- recovery of the property, or
- compensation for the value of the lost property.
Specifically, you would have to prove the following three elements to make a successful conversion claim in California:
- you had ownership or right to possession of the property,
- the defendant wrongfully took your property or interfered with your ability to use it; and
- you suffered damages as a result.
Civil Claims for Conversion
Conversion is a civil claim and is very similar to and often identical to the criminal charge of theft. Theft is a criminal charge where conversion is the civil claim for the same action. Under a conversion theory, however, theft is not the only thing that can count as “interference” with the use of property.
Conversion is an intentional tort, which means:
- that the party suing must prove that the defendant purposely meant to deprive the owner of his or her property.
Our California personal injury attorneys discuss the following frequently asked questions about conversion cases:
- 1. What is “conversion” under California law?
- 2. Does conversion simply mean “theft” of my property?
- 3. Can the taking of real property (land) fit into this claim under California law?
- 4. Does the act have to be committed intentionally?
- 5. Do I still have a claim if I get my property back?
- 6. What damages can I receive after a successful lawsuit?
- 7. What is the statute of limitation for a conversion claim in California?
1. What is “conversion” under California law?
Conversion, under California law, is defined as:
- intentional interference with the property of another with the intent to deprive the owner of the property.1
In order to prove a case of conversion, the owner of the property (the plaintiff) must prove each of the elements of the claim, which are:
- the plaintiff had ownership or right to the property at the time it was converted;
- the defendant wrongfully took the property or interfered with the owner’s ability to use it;
- without the plaintiff’s consent; and
- the plaintiff suffered damages as a result.2
2. Does conversion simply mean “theft” of my property?
Not necessarily. While theft will always be conversion in the civil lawsuit world, not all types of conversion must necessarily be theft.
Other types of conduct that can be included in this claim include but are not limited to:
- destroying the plaintiff’s property;
- refusing to record the proper ownership after a sale (e.g., of a car);
- altering property in such a way that it cannot be properly used or used at all; or
- failure to deliver funds or property a person has the duty to deliver.
Conversion has more to do with actual interference with the plaintiff’s ownership and possession rights rather than just theft.3
3. Can the taking of real property (land) fit into this claim under California law?
A claim for conversion only applies to personal property, not real property. Real property is land or structures that are attached to that land, like a home.
Different legal claims are designed to create a remedy for a victim of a taking of real property.
3.1 What types of personal property can be converted?
Many different items that would be defined as personal property could lead to a claim for conversion, including but not limited to:
- cars, trucks, SUV’s, and other motor vehicles;
- cash money;
- stocks, bonds, or other financial instruments;
- property that was meant to be delivered to the plaintiff but was not;
- building supplies (especially in disputes with contractors); and
- other valuables.
4. Does the act have to be committed intentionally?
The act of taking that would constitute a conversion must be done intentionally, not accidentally. Intent is a crucial element that must be proven at trial.
Although the offense is one that requires an “intentional” taking of the property, the “intent” does not have to be to commit a wrong or even done for selfish reasons. The intentional aspect deals only with the fact that the property was taken.4
Ordinarily, the motive of the defendant’s act is not considered a material issue or one that really matters.5 Instead, it has to do with whether the personal property was taken or its use interfered with intentionally by the defendant, regardless of the motive of the defendant.6
5. Do I still have a claim if I get my property back?
Yes. A person still has a claim for conversion even if he or she was eventually able to recover the property.
In fact, a lawsuit for conversion is not only done with the purpose of returning the property but rather to sue for money damages to compensate the plaintiff for the loss of the personal property or its use for a certain period of time.
Even if a person is able to get back the personal property, the person lost the value of his or her possession and ownership of it for however long the property was gone. This is compensable with money damages in a civil lawsuit.
6. What damages can I receive after a successful lawsuit?
A person deprived of his or property can sue for and receive damages such as but not limited to:
- Recovery of the Property: A person can sue for the return of the specific property (called “replevin” under common law). This enables a person to get back what was wrongfully taken from him or her.7
- Value of the Property: A person can sue instead for the value of the property at the time of the conversion and the accrued interest from the time the property was taken.
- Costs of Recovering the Property: It often takes money to get wrongfully converted property back, and those funds can be recovered through a lawsuit.
- Injunction: An injunction is an order from a court to do or not to do something. In conversion cases, a court can order a defendant not to keep committing the acts that led to the lawsuit in the first place.
7. What is the statute of limitation for a conversion claim in California?
California’s statute of limitations to bring a conversion lawsuit is three years from the date the personal property was wrongfully taken. People who wait longer than three years will have their case dismissed by the court.8
Contact us for help…
For questions about conversion claims or to confidentially discuss your case with one of our California personal injury attorneys, do not hesitate to contact us at the Shouse Law Group.
We have local law offices in and around Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange County, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, San Jose, Oakland, the San Francisco Bay area, and several nearby cities.
- CAJUR CONVERSION 1, Anne E. Melley, J.D., LL.M, of the staff of the National Legal Research Group, Inc. See also Steele v. Marsicano, 102 Cal. 666, 36 P. 920 (1894); Dodge v. Meyer, 61 Cal. 405, 1882 WL 1923 (1882); Fremont Indem. Co. v. Fremont General Corp., 148 Cal. App. 4th 97, (2d Dist. 2007).
- Aronson v. Bank of America Nat. Trust & Savings Ass’n, 9 Cal. 2d 640, 72 P.2d 548 (1937); Welco Electronics, Inc. v. Mora, 223 Cal. App. 4th 202, 166 Cal. Rptr. 3d 877 (2d Dist. 2014); CACI 2100.
- Moore v. Regents of University of California, 51 Cal. 3d 120, 271 Cal. Rptr. 146, 793 P.2d 479, 61 Ed. Law Rep. 292, 16 A.L.R.5th 903 (1990); Ananda Church of Self-Realization v. Massachusetts Bay Ins. Co., 95 Cal. App. 4th 1273, 116 Cal. Rptr. 2d 370 (3d Dist. 2002); Fischer v. Machado, 50 Cal. App. 4th 1069, 58 Cal. Rptr. 2d 213 (3d Dist. 1996).
- Fresno Air Service v. Wood, 232 Cal. App. 2d 801, 43 Cal. Rptr. 276 (5th Dist. 1965); Reynolds v. Lerman, 138 Cal. App. 2d 586, 292 P.2d 559 (2d Dist. 1956).
- Byer v. Canadian Bank of Commerce, 8 Cal. 2d 297, 65 P.2d 67 (1937); Johnson v. State Bar, 12 Cal. App. 4th 1561, 16 Cal. Rptr. 2d 6 (2d Dist. 1993); Beverly Finance Co. v. American Cas. Co. of Reading, Pa., 273 Cal. App. 2d 259, 78 Cal. Rptr. 334 (2d Dist. 1969).
- Welco Electronics, Inc. v. Mora, 223 Cal. App. 4th 202, 166 Cal. Rptr. 3d 877 (2d Dist. 2014).
- Flores v. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, 224 Cal. App. 4th 199, 168 Cal. Rptr. 3d 204 (5th Dist. 2014), review denied, (Apr. 30, 2014); Shaw v. Palmer, 65 Cal. App. 441, 224 P. 106 (3d Dist. 1924).
- California Code of Civil Procedure section 338; Strasberg v. Odyssey Group, Inc. (1996) 51 Cal.App.4th 906; Bennett v. Hibernia Bank (1956) 47 Cal.2d 540.