Trespass to chattel is a particular type of trespass whereby a person has intentionally interfered with another person’s lawful possession of a chattel. A chattel refers to the movable or immovable personal property of an individual except real estate. Generally, the basic elements of a claim of trespass to chattels are lack of an owner’s consent to trespass, interference with possessory interest, and intention of the trespasser.
In an action for trespass to chattel, a plaintiff has to show that s/he had either actual or constructive possession of goods at the time of the trespass[i]. It has also to be shown that there was an unauthorized, unlawful interference or dispossession of the property. Actual damage is not necessarily a required element of a trespass to chattels claim[ii]. A person may be said to have possession of a chattel if s/he has physical control of the chattel with the intent to exercise such control on one’s own behalf, or on behalf of another.
Trespass to chattel is almost similar to conversion. One wrongfully takes and carries another’s property away in both offenses. It can be distinguished only on the basis of the measure of damages. In trespass to chattel, a person can recover only the actual damages suffered by reason of the impairment of the property or the loss of its use, but in conversion full value of a chattel can be awarded[iii].
Any unlawful interference, however slight, with another’s enjoyment of personal property is a trespass to chattel. Interference can be dispossession of a chattel by taking it, destroying it, or barring the owner’s access to it. A trespass to personal property may be committed with or without the exercise of physical force[iv].
In order to constitute a trespass to title an intentional dispossession of a property has to be committed. Intentional dispossession may said to have happened when a person intentionally takes physical control over a chattel and deals with it in a manner affecting the possessory interest of another person. A dispossession may be committed intentionally by taking a chattel from another person without his/her consent, or obtaining possession from another by fraud or duress.
The intention necessary to make a person liable for trespass of or dispossession of a chattel is the intention to deal with the chattel resulting in dispossession. Such person must have knowledge that his/her action is destructive of any possessory right of another person. There must be only an intention to interfere physically with the goods themselves and it need not be a wrongful intent. It is immaterial that a person intermeddles with a chattel under a mistake of law or fact.
A person will be liable to a possessor if s/he dispossesses the other of a chattel, or a chattel is impaired as to its condition, quality, or value, or a possessor is deprived of the use of a chattel for a substantial time, or bodily harm is caused to the possessor, or harm is caused to some person or thing in which the possessor has a legally protected interest[v].
For a trespass to chattels to be actionable, actual injury must have occurred to a chattel or a plaintiff’s rights with respect to chattel[vi]. However, dispossession always amounts to trespass of chattel, and subjects a trespasser at least to liability for nominal damages for interference with possession. An interference not amounting to dispossession is not actionable if there is no harm caused to a possessor.
[i] Burgess v. Am. Express Co., 2007 NCBC 15 (N.C. Super. Ct. 2007).
[ii] Kirschbaum v. McLaurin Parking Co., 188 N.C. App. 782 (N.C. Ct. App. 2008).
[iii] Spickler v. Lombardo, 1977 Pa. Dist. & Cnty. Dec. LEXIS 309 (Pa. County Ct. 1977).
[iv] Hecht v. Components Intl, Inc., 2008 NY Slip Op 28439 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 2008).
[v] Omega World Travel, Inc. v. Mummagraphics, Inc., 469 F.3d 348 (4th Cir. Va. 2006).
[vi] Snap-On Bus. Solutions Inc. v. O’Neil & Assocs., 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 37688 (N.D. Ohio Apr. 16, 2010).