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Conversion, Trover, & Detinue

This article on negligence is part of Vail Law's open-source litigation and legal risk management checklist. Connect with me on LinkedIn.

Conversion is a common law tort that occurs with “any distinct, unauthorized act of dominion or ownership exercised by one person over personal property belonging to another.” Itin v. Ungar, 17 P.3d 129, 135 n.10 (Colo. 2000).


To state a claim for conversion, the plaintiff must prove the following elements:


(1) Defendant exercised dominion or control over property;

(2) That property belonged to Plaintiff;

(3) Defendant’s exercise of control was unauthorized;

(4) Plaintiff demanded return of the property; and

(5) Defendant refused to return it.


L-3 Commc’ns Corp. v. Jaxon Eng’g & Maint., Inc., 863 F. Supp. 2d 1066, 1081 (D. Colo. 2012).


The key differences between conversion and civil theft are that the claim of conversion requires the demand (and its refusal) to return the property, whereas civil theft requires the specific intent to permanently deprive the plaintiff of the use or benefit of the property (in conversion, theoretically, the exercise of control could be for only a limited period followed by return). Additionally, a person who mistakenly believes their use or dominion is legal may still be liable for conversion (i.e., a good faith purchaser for value), whereas such a good faith purchaser would lack the specific intent required to be liable for civil theft. Additionally, as a common-law (as opposed to statutory claim), a claim for conversion may be barred by the Economic Loss Rule (see Bermel v. BlueRadios, Inc., 440 P.3d 1150 (Colo. 2019)).


The related common law claims of trover and detinue are also easily confused with conversion (and, in practice, have been largely subsumed into the tort of conversion). At one point conversion only applied to claims concerning money, detinue was an equitable claim to recover wrongfully detained goods or possessions (not money, but specific performance of actual recovery—for example cattle), and trover was a legal claim to recover damages (the value of, rather than the actual return of) for wrongful taking of personal property (normally also cattle). Today, the tort of conversion has subsumed both trover and detinue, and a plaintiff can request legal relief (money damages) or equitable relief (return of property). See, e.g. Burgess v. Small, 117 A.2d 344 (Me. 1955) (conversion and trover for stolen cattle).


At Vail Law, we use an open-source, Litigation Checklist approach to develop claims and defenses tailored to each unique situation. Often these include breach of negligent misrepresentation, fraud, breach of contract, and exotic statutory causes of action. Contact Jeff Vail at (303) 600-3730 or jvail@vail-law.com to discuss your specific case.

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