In this post, I’m going to continue my series of exploring various statutes of limitation for torts under New York law. Previously, I went over statutes of limitation for torts like fraud and wrongful death. In this post, I’m going to talk about one of the lesser known torts, the tort of conversion.
The tort of conversion is about interference and specifically interference with plaintiff’s ability to possess an item they have the legal right to possess. In New York, the criteria for conversion are (1) the existence of plaintiff’s possessory right or interest in the item, and (2) defendant’s dominion over that item or interference with it in derogation of plaintiff’s rights. In my admittedly limited research, the New York authority I found for that is a New York Court of Appeals case called Colavito v. New York Organ Donor Network, Inc (2006) 8 N.Y.3d 43, 49.
As my first aside, I’ll point out that California also provides for the tort of conversion so it is not specific to New York. In California, the elements for conversion are (1) the plaintiff’s ownership or right to possession of the property; (2) the defendant’s conversion by a wrong act or disposition of plaintiff’s property rights; and (3) damages suffered by plaintiff. The California authority for that — because I care and know that you’re interested — is a California Supreme Court case called Lee v. Hanley (2015) 61 Cal.4th 1225, 1240. A reminder as well that the California Supreme Court and New York Court of Appeals are both the highest state courts in their respective states and, as a result, are the final judicial arbiters on question of state law.
As my second aside, I’ll mention that New York also has a tort for “aiding and abetting a conversion”. In short, a plaintiff suing for that needs to first prove that a conversion occurred. Second, the plaintiff needs to prove that their defendant aided and assisted with that conversion knowing that the property in question did not belong to the party who committed the conversion. If you want authority for that, the New York case I found was Torrance Construction, Inc. v. Jaques (2015) 127 A.D.3d 1260, 1263.
Asides over, the statute of limitations in New York for the tort of conversion is — cue drum roll — three years. The governing statute for that is section 214(3) of New York’s Civil Practice Law and Rules (CPLR). If you read section 214(3), you may see the term “chattel.” Rest assured, however. That’s just fancy lawyer-speak for a piece of property that isn’t real estate or land.
As with any statute of limitations, you should always be concerned about when your proverbial statute of limitations clock starts. The answer for conversion is that the clock begins to run when the converting act takes place. In other words, when the defendant exercises dominion or control over the item to the derogation or interference with the plaintiff’s rights. The New York case I found for that is a New York Court of Appeals case called Vigilant Insurance Company of America v. Housing Authority of the City of El Paso, Texas (1995) 87 N.Y.2d 36,44. The Vigilant Insurance case also addresses the question of reasonable and diligent discovery — in other words, does the three-year clock start later in some way if the plaintiff did not find out about the conversion right away?
Sometimes the clock is delayed if the plaintiff did not find out about the tortious conduct right away. For the case of conversion under New York law, however, the answer is no. The clock begins when the converting act takes place regardless of when the plaintiff discovers it.
As always, I hope this post was helpful. It is not a comprehensive or exhaustive discussion of the tort of Conversion. If you are going to rely on this post, I encourage you to do your own research because it is entirely possible that the material presented could have changed in the time between when this post was written and when you’re reading it. If you do have to do research, hopefully the links provided in this post will help you do that. If you do have a situation involving conversion, please do find an attorney in your area with whom you can discuss the facts of your case.
Lastly, as this post is related to New York law, I need to say that even though I am licensed to practice law in New York, I do not — at the time of writing — have a physical office in New York state. Thus, under section 470 of New York’s Judiciary Law, I am not able to represent clients in New York state. However, if I am able to help you out by connecting you with a New York attorney I know in your area, I am happy to do so. Please feel free to reach out.