Meaning of Conversion
According to Underhill, conversion, which consists in the defendants wrongfully converting to his own use and depriving the plaintiff permanently or for an indefinite time of goods, to the use and possession of which the plaintiff is entitled, as by taking them away, detaining them, destroying them, delivering them to a third person or otherwise dealing with them in a manner adverse to the plaintiff and inconsistent with his right to the use and possession of them.
Thus it is wrongful taking or destroying of goods. More detention is sufficient to constitute the tort of conversion. It may be interference with ownership as well as possession. It is always something inconsistent to the right of the plaintiff.
Ways in which Conversion may be committed
Conversion may take place in the following manners:
(1) By taking possession in a wrongful manner: Anyone who without authority takes possession of another man’s good with the intention of asserting dominion over them is liable for conversion. But a mere taking unaccompained by an intention to exercise permanent or temporary dominion may be a trespass, but is no conversion (Fouldes Vs. Willoughby).
It should be noted that if there is wrongful taking it makes no difference that such an act was done under a mistaken but honest supposition of being lawfully entitled or with the intention of benefiting the true owner.
(2) By illegal or wrongful delivery: If a man, who entrusted with the goods of another, put them into the hands of a third person contrary to orders, it is a conversion. The giver and the receiver will be liable as joint torfeasors. Misdelivery by a carrier, though by mistake, will amount to conversion (Deuseux Vs. Barclay). So also, a bailee, who pledges the goods to a third person, commits conversion. Similarly in Loeschman Vs. Machin, it was held that the hirer of a piano, who sends it to an auctioner who refuses to deliver it up unless the expense incurred be first paid.
(3) By setting property in wrongful manner: The man, who howsoever innocently, obtains possession of the goods of a person who has been fraudulently deprived of them, ann dispossed of them, whether for his own benefit or that of any other person, is guilty of conversion (Holtins Vs. Fowler).
It shoul be noted that wrongful sale of goods is conversion (Edward Vs. Hoper.)
(4) By destroying property: Destruction of a chattel belonging to another is an act of conversion for its effect is to deprive the owner of it altogether he. For example taking wine from a cask and filling it with water is a conversion of the whole liquor (Richardson Vs. Atkinson.)
(5) By detaining property in a wrongful manner: Where a person has possession of another’s chattel, and refuses to deliver it, this is an assertion or a right inconsistent with his general dominion over it, and the use which at all times, and in all places, he is entitled to make of it and consequently amounts to an act of conversion (Fouldes Vs. Willoughby.) The essence of this form of conversion is refusal on demand. An unqualified refusal is always conclusive evidence of conversion, but a qualified, reasonable and justifiable refusal is not (Alexander Vs. Southey).
(6) By interference in the title of the property: There may be a conversion of goods, even though the defendant has never been in actual physical possession of it, if his act amounts to absolute denial and repudiation of the plaintiff’s right (Oakeley Vs. Lyster.)
Unlawful user of the goods of another in such a manner that the goods might to rendered liable to foreiture by the authorities would also amount to conversion (Moorgate Merchanitle Company Limited Vs. Fwih.)
As held in Akola Electric Supply Company Limited Vs. Gulbdi an interference with a chattel in a manner inconsistent with the right of the owner accompanied by a denial of title of the owner, amounts to conversion.
Distinguish between trespass and conversion
Conversion is wider than trespass, because in an action for conversion the plaintiff need not prove actual possession but can sue if he had an immediate right to possess. Trespass is a wrong to possession and cannot, therefore, be committed by the actual possessor. But an actual possessor can be sued in conversion by the person who has the immediate right to possess. Thus, a purchaser who has paid price but has not yet obtained possession, can sue his vendor for conversion.
(2) Trespass in damaging, or meddling with the chattel of another without intending to exercise adverse possession over it. Conversion is breach, made adversely in the continuity of the owner’s dominion over the chattel, though it may not be hurt.
The case of Foulds v. Willoughly
The distinction between trespass to goods and conversion was very well brought out in the case of. In this case the plaintiff embarked upon the ferry boat with two horses and paid for their passage. The defendant wrongfully refused to carry the horses and requested the plaintiff to put them ashore. The plaintiff refused to comply with this request, whereupon the defendant turned the horses loose on the landing place the plaintiff remained on board and was carried across the river. It was held that the defendant’s act in taking the horses was wrongful and actionable as a trespass, but in the absence of evidence of any intention on the part of the defendant to assert any right or dominion over the plaintiff’s property, there was no conversion.
Many acts which amounts to trespass also amount to conversion, but in certain cases there may be a trespass but no conversion. Thus, a simple as portation (removal) or a chattel unaccompanied by an intention to exercise acts of dominion over it is trespass, but no conversion. Further, mere damage to goods in the plaintiff’s possession falling short of actual destruction is trespass but not conversion.
Distinguish between Conversion and Detention
Conversion is an interference with the plaintiff’s possession or the right to possess together with the intention to exercise dominion over the goods. Detinue consists in the act of wrongfully withholding goods from the plaintiff in whatever way they may have come to the defendant’s possession. In effect, the tort is consitituted by a wrongful refusal to return the plaintiff’s goods on demand.
(2) The chief distinction between detention and conversion, however, lies in the remedies sought. Detinue is for return of goods; conversion is for damages. Generally, an action for detention is brought where the defendant is at the time of action in wrongful possession of specific goods such as a horse, or a picture which the plaintiff wishes to have returned to him. Conversion is the appropriate remedy where the plaintiff seeks merely to recover as damages the value of goods of which the defendant has the title. Thus, it is the proper remedy where the defendant no longer has possession of the goods or where they cannot be identified, such as so many bushels of corn or so much coal.
(3) It is true that conversion covers most of the sphere of detinue and trespass, and thus in most cases wrongful detention and trespass will also constitute a conversion. But in certain cases an action for conversion will not lie. Thus, if a bailee negligently loses goods or allows them to be destroyed he is liable no detinue, since it is by his fault that he is unable to restore the goods, but he is not liable in conversion since there is no act of wilful interference, that is, no positive act of misfeasance, which is the essence of action for conversion, nor is there any intention to deny the plaintiff’s rights.