Intentional Interference with Personal Property


Nature of the Tort

Pearson v. Dodd

United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit, 1969. 410 F.2d 701, cert. denied, 395 U.S. 947, 89 S. Ct. 2021, 23 L. Ed. 2d 465 (1969).

Dodd is the plaintiff and Pearson is the defendant. Dodd complained of conversion and privacy. The trial court agreed that conversion had happened but not the privacy. The appellate court is reviewing both points.


Did conversion occur here? Does conversion also protect confidential information?


Conversion is defined as:

“An intentional exercise of dominion or control over a chattel which so seriously interferes with the right of another to control it that the actor may justly be required to pay the other the full value of the chattel.”

In other words, a serious transfer of the full value of the property.

A conversion can occur in two ways:

  1. Transfer of physical documents
  2. Transfer of protected information (literary property, scientific invention, plans for commerce).

If conversion is found, then the whole value of the property is to be requested for damages.


Based on these facts, there was no conversion of property of protected information.


Dodds was a senator. A former employee snuck into his office by night, photocopied some documents, and gave them to another for publishing. Dodds sued for conversion and privacy.


The court begins by discussing how this theory of conversion, it’s development over time, and where it stands today. It accepts that conversion can occur now but does not believe the facts of this case meet the standards for conversion. One the first aspect (physical property), the documents were photocopied. So, the plaintiff had not been deprived of the use of the documents, therefore, there was no conversion of property.

Additionally, the court addresses whether information can be converted. They assert that they can but the documents in question do not qualify. Information that has some value of commerce are things that can be converted. For example, intellectual property such as literature or an invention. Even business plans can qualify. Since the documents in question contain no such information, there is not a tort of conversion committed.


In a heirachy of torts, trespass to chattels is less wrong than conversion.

Conversion can occur to both property and information, but it needs to be really significant.

Restatement (Second) of Torts § 222A. What Constitutes a Conversion

“An intentional exercise of dominion or control over a chattel which so seriously interferes with the right of another to control it that the actor may justly be required to pay the other the full value of the chattel.”

How does one determine if the “seriousness” of the interference? Here are some of the factors the court considers:

  1. Extent and duration of actor’s dominion
  2. Actor’s intent to assert a right over the chattel
  3. The actor’s good faith
  4. Extend and duration of resulting interference
  5. Harm to chattel
  6. Inconvenience and expense to the other party

Effect of Good Faith

Even though one may have acted in good faith. This can occur in two ways.

First, if a party attempt to alter the chattel in any way contrary to the plaintiff’s right of control, they can still be liable for conversion. For example, one could accidentally deliver the chattel to the wrong address, believing it to be the right address, and still be liable for conversion.

Second, a good faith purchase could be found liable for conversion. Take for instance a car that was purchased from a thief (through conversion). There is no title for the car but the purchase happens anyways. Therefore, the purchaser could still be liable for conversion. However, if there is a title and the title was obtained by fraud, then the purchaser is protected from conversion.

Necessity of Demand; Return of Chattel

In some states, a conversion through bona fide purchase only occurs if the purchaser fails to return the chattel to the original owner. Other states treat both conversions the same. Finally, other states provide a different definition for both conversions, but allows the owner to decide which to demand.

A person can still be liable for conversion (with reduced damages) even if they return the chattel before conversion is claimed. If the converter maintains the chattel and gives payment for it, the original owner no longer has a claim of conversion.


Damages are to be collected according to the market value of the item that was converted (at the time it was converted). Under certain circumstances, damages may be collected even when there is no market value of the chattel. For instance, creative work may have no market value, but damages may be awarded to account for the time in producing the work. Under other circumstances, punitive damages may be allowed when the conduct was done maliciously.

What May Be Converted

In short, chattels. In other words, land cannot be converted, nor the objects on the land (until they are removed from the property).

Who May Maintain the Action

A few people may have an action for conversion. First, the individual who possessed the chattel when it was converted. Second, a person who may not have had possession of the chattel but has a right to it (i.e. Mortgage collecting on a default). Finally, a converter who has a right to claim, can collect against another converter.

Additional Notes

“The interference with the possessory interest is so extensive that court says defendant has ‘converted’ the property to its own use.”

In other words, trespassed occurred so much that it’s more than a trespass. Damages are going to be the market value of the chattel.


The content contained in this article may contain inaccuracies and is not intended to reflect the opinions, views, beliefs, or practices of any academic professor or publication. Instead, this content is a reflection on the author’s understanding of the law and legal practices.