Trespass to goods is the deliberate interference with goods in the possession of another. The interference must be direct in accordance with the general requirements for trespass, which also apply in the case of battery, assault and trespass on land.
It is usually enough to touch the property. Moving, damaging and using property constitutes trespass. The goods must be in the possession of the other parties They need not be the owner as in the case of land.
If a person withholds goods without authority, this may constitute that the tort of detinue. The person with the better title may take legal action to have the goods delivered to him.
If a person holds goods for a limited purpose and acts as if he had rights in excess of those rights, then he may be liable in conversion. If a person breaks another person’s goods, he may be regarded as having converted them. He must compensate the owner for the loss.
Trespass to Goods
Trespass to goods is the direct and wrongful interference with another in the possession of goods or movables. The interference may comprise taking the goods or chattels from another, damaging them, breaking them and even simply moving them from one place to another.
The damage, loss or interference must directly affect the goods themselves. The removal of goods which are later damaged is insufficiently direct for the purpose of liability in trespass. Liability in negligence may arise.
Trespass to goods is based on interference with possession and not the title. A person in possession or with the right to possession may maintain the action. The person in possession of the goods can maintain trespass against all persons, except a person with better title.
Title may derive from purchase from a previous person with good title, manufacture, finding and taking from the state of nature. The person with the better title may himself be in a position to restrain and sue the possessor, for the wrongful holding of goods. The principle emphasises the relativity of title to property.
Nature of Trespass
As with trespass generally, most authorities hold that trespass to goods is actionable, without proof of damage. By being actionable in itself, any interference with goods constitutes a wrong. If damage was required, then a person would be free to interfere with goods without legal liability or restraint, provided he did so in such a way that did not cause any financial loss.
As with trespass generally, liability is strict in that he need not act intentionally or negligently. However, the defendant must act willfully in the sense that his actions are voluntary. A person who sleepwalks or is caused directly by another to move or take goods, is not liable, at least if he has not been negligent in the circumstances.
Trespass is absolute. A person may be liable, notwithstanding that he acts in good faith and is not aware that his actions are wrongful. If the other party, in fact, has a better title, then his actions constitute trespass, notwithstanding an honest belief in his title. The issue may be relevant to the issue of damages.
That which would otherwise constitute trespass may be mandated by consent. The acts must be within the scope of the consent. If the person exceeds the terms of consent, consent is negated.
Action may be justified by lawful authority. There are numerous statutory provisions which allow Gardaí and public officials to enter a property, search for and seize goods that may be evidence in criminal cases. Goods which are stolen, contraband or are used in an unlawful enterprise, may be subject to seizure under legislation.
Legislation commonly confers power on the District Court to issue warrants allowing for search and seizure. The warrants authorise entry, seizure and removal of material. Typically, it gives an authorised officer, power to enter, search and take evidence.
Generally, the evidence may be removed for the purpose of the investigation and retained pending the conclusion of the proceedings. Legislation may make provisions for disposal of seized evidence in particular cases.
Detinue is the wrongful withholding, retention or detention of goods by the defendant, in respect of which the claimant has a better title. The person detaining the chattel must do so adversely to the claimant’s rights. Generally, demand must be first made of the defendant.
A person who finds moveable property / a chattel, (such as something that has been clearly lost), who is not aware of the identity of the true owner, may retain possession of it against all parties, except the true owner.
The true owner/person with a better title should first demand the return of the chattel, before taking legal action. The demand should be notified to the person who possesses the goods or otherwise brought to his knowledge. A demand is not required where it would be patently futile.
Where it is reasonable for the person holding the goods to refuse to return them, such as where the claimant’s title is unclear, the former may take steps to ascertain the claimant’s title. There is an onus to act quickly and to undertake the searches and investigations process as quickly as possible.
Where goods are entrusted to a person under a bailment, the bailee remains liable for detinue, even if he ceases to have possession of them or loses them. In contrast, where a person finds goods and later loses them, he is not liable for detinue. He may be liable in conversion if he has wrongly disposed of the goods.
A person who detains goods may be subject to an order for their delivery and /or may be liable in damages for their detention. He may be liable alternatively for their return and/ or for the value of the goods, together with damages in either case. Where it is an ordinary item, with no unique characteristics, the power to order delivery is discretionary.
Delivery may not be ordered where the thing concerned is an ordinary item, which can be replaced, has no particular value, provided that damages would be adequate. An allowance may be made to the defendant, where he has done works or taken steps which have increased the value of the goods.
Damages for conversion are generally the value of the item or chattel, at the date of conversion. This is assessed in accordance with general principles similar to those applicable in the case of the breach of contract for the sale of goods. Loss of rental value may be allowed.
Conversion is a wrongful assertion of title to goods or the denial of another’s title. The essence of the tort is that the defendant has done something inconsistent with the title or right of the true owner.
The taking of a chattel in itself, will not necessarily constitute conversion. Something must be done which is inconsistent with the title of the true owner. There need not be any intention to deprive or actual permanent deprivation of possession.
A person who receives and comes into possession of goods without the owner’s consent may become liable for conversion. Where goods are given without request, the recipient must not damage or destroy them. He must take reasonable steps to return them to their owner. If they are not collected, have no value or have become a nuisance, he may be justified in disposing of them.
Legislation has changed the position in the case of unsolicited goods sent to consumers. See separately, the sections in relation to consumer law provisions in that regard which are designed to prevent inertia selling.
Breaking and Damaging Goods
The misuse of goods by a person who comes into possession of them without title may constitute conversion. Accordingly, selling such goods or pledging them as security is likely to constitute conversion. On the other hand, doing that which is not inconsistent with the title of the owner would not constitute conversion.
Where a person wilfully breaks or destroys goods, it will generally constitute conversion. It is inconsistent with the owner’s title. If the goods are changed but not destroyed, there may not be converted, although there may be trespass. A change of identity is said to constitute conversion, but a change in quality is a trespass only.
The misuse of a vehicle such that it risks being seized by police would appear to constitute conversion. The failure to return goods once demanded by the true owner is likely to constitute conversion.
A person may be liable for conversion if he denies the title of the true owner, even if he is not in possession of the goods. This may be so, even if he has an honest belief in relation to his own title. A person may be liable for conversion, where he has stolen, misappropriated goods or even purchased which he has no title.
Scope of Conversion
Conversion extends beyond chattels, to money, cheques, title deeds and animals, which were not regarded as personal property at common law Traditionally, the human body was not regarded as property, at least while the person was alive. Recent cases have contemplated that human tissue may be capable of being converted, such as where, for example, it has been damaged through improper storage. It is not clear if this would apply to human embryos.
Animals are chattels for the purpose of trespass. It is trespass to hit, beat, or throw an object at an animal. However, it is unlikely to be trespass to lay poison for an animal as this is insufficiently direct.
Conversion and Third Parties
A person may claim conversion based on his ownership or possession. Where goods are found, the person who comes into possession has good title against all parties, other than those with a better title. He may himself maintain an action for trespass against all third parties, without a better title.
A bailee is estopped from denying the bailor’s title, in much the same way as with tenant and landlord. A third-party must displace the bailor’s title by proving a better title (title paramount).
Co-owners cannot be liable for conversion as regards each other.
Where a person has possession of goods, he may require parties who make competing claims to them to institute interpleader proceedings. The goods are put under the court to abide the result.
Conversion and Land
The occupier of land or premises, where goods are found, may have a better title than the finder, where he possesses or intends to possess them. Where things are found in or under land, the owner or occupier of the land may have a superior title to the finder.
If movable property is attached to land or buildings, it is a fixture and belongs to the landowner or tenant. Where it is not attached, the owner or occupier of land may have a better title, if before the personal property is found, he has manifested an intention to exercise control over the building, place or thing, in which it is situate.
The owner of the land is not necessarily the owner or possessor of everything in the land. Under one judicial approach, the owner of land in or on which mislaid or unremembered chattels are intentionally placed for safekeeping, whether in or under the surface, cannot claim to be the owner of the chattels, simply by reason of being the owner of the land.
The better position appears to be that the owner or occupier has a right of bare possession against third parties. Under this approach, the owner or occupier of land may be deemed to be in possession of chattels in and under it, even if he did not know of their existence. He may maintain a claim for possession, as distinct from ownership, against a claimant whether a trespasser or another whose claim is based simply on unearthing and removing the chattels.
Where a person acquires goods/chattels in or under land as a trespasser, public policy may require that he does not benefit from the trespass and that he should be denied rights in the chattels found.