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California Statute of Limitations – Conversion

Here’s another installment of my series of posts on the Statute of Limitations. Today, I’m going to go over the tort of Conversion under California law. As background, “conversion” is a fancy way of saying that a person (i.e. the defendant) has interfered without consent with the plaintiff’s ability to use their property by, for instance, (1) preventing plaintiff from having access to it, or (2) destroying it. The term arises because the defendant has taken plaintiff’s property and converted it — hence, “conversion” — to the defendant’s own use.

If that definition makes sense, you might be asking “Andy, how is this different from theft?” There are at least two answers to that question:

  • First, in California, “theft” is a crime. See, for example, Sections 484 and 487 of the California Penal Code. California further divides “theft” into two degrees based on the dollar value of what was taken. Under Section 486 of the California Penal Code, if it’s under $950, then it’s “petty theft,” but if it’s over $950, then it’s “grand theft”.
  • Second, the crime of theft fundamentally involves the taking of property. This taking may involve fraud or deception, but it doesn’t have to. Taking property, though, is only one way in which conversion can be done. Conversion fundamentally involves interference of some kind with the owner’s ability to use the property. It is possible to interfere without actually taking the property from the lawful owner. Phrased another way, theft would be a kind of conversion, but there are other types of conversion besides theft.

Anyway, definitions and theft aside, the question I was trying to address here is the statute of limitations for the tort of conversion in California. Conversion is a tort that relates to property and many torts relating to property have a statute of limitations of three years. Conversion is no different. If you need authority for that, it’s Section 338(c)(1) of the California Code of Civil Procedure, which states:

“Within three years:

(c) (1) An action for taking, detaining, or injuring goods or chattels, including an action for the specific recovery of personal property.”

Lastly, I’ll briefly describe the damages involved in a conversion lawsuit. Under Section 3336 of the California Code of Civil Procedure:

“The detriment caused by the wrongful conversion of personal property is presumed to be:

First—The value of the property at the time of the conversion, with the interest from that time, or, an amount sufficient to indemnify the party injured for the loss which is the natural, reasonable and proximate result of the wrongful act complained of and which a proper degree of prudence on his part would not have averted; and

Second—A fair compensation for the time and money properly expended in pursuit of the property.”

Of course, these are just presumed damages. If your situation is atypical or unusual in some way, you can certainly try to make an argument for more than what Section 3336 would presume.

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Andy Chen

Andy I. Chen is a lawyer licensed to practice law in California and New York. Andy maintains offices in Los Altos, California and Modesto, California. Under the New York Court of Appeals' 2015 decision in Schoenefeld v. State of New York, Andy does not accept cases from those in New York state. He does, however, know many lawyers in New York state and would be happy to make a referral.

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