**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer. These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****
There are two areas of law to look at in answering these questions: contracts and torts. A contracts analysis would consider whether the homeowner had agreed to take care of your things or at least store them for a particular amount of time and whether you had any obligations in return. Torts is the area of law that is known more casually as “personal injury.” A torts analysis would look at the act of “conversion” which means taking unauthorized control over someone else’s possession. A milder tort claim that might apply but would be harder to prove is “trespass against chattels” which is a claim against someone for unauthorized use of possessions.[i] Both a contract claim and a tort claim would be made in civil court, probably small claims court depending on the monetary damage that has been suffered.
In the contract dispute, the person whose possessions were taken or discarded seeks to show that the homeowner stopped protecting or storing the possessions. In other words, the terms of the storage bargain were violated. (A contract claim would probably apply to a situation involving the homeowner’s use of the stored possessions only if he used them so much that they wore out; only in that extreme kind of situation would it be likely to say that using the stuff breached an agreement to store and care for it.)
Since contract law comes from past cases, rather than statutes, the facts of each dispute are compared to previous cases with similar facts. Those facts have to be backed with good proof. If the possessions were in a church locker because that church had a policy that poor people could store things there for up to thirty days, then the court claim would have to include a copy of that written policy or admissions from church officials about the existence of the policy.[ii]
If the possessions were suddenly gone from a friend’s basement, the claim would have to demonstrate where and for how long the friend agreed to keep the stuff. Relatives of the homeowner might serve as witnesses to the agreement. Perhaps the homeless person can convince the court that he had another place where he would have moved his things had he not relied on this friend to keep them.
Clearly, there will be different facts involved with each situation, but the person trying to prove that an agreement existed always has to show as much detail as possible about the content of the agreement and the way both of the parties to the agreement knew those terms. Then, conveying that the terms were not followed will convince a court that the contract was breached.
To make the conversion claim, it is necessary to prove that even though the homeless owner of the possessions put them in the custody of the homeowner:
1. the homeowner took control over the stuff and
2. the homeless owner of the stuff could not get it back after asking for it or was not even able to ask for it.
Under the common law, and still in many states, the court claim to sue someone who has converted someone else’s possessions to his own is called “trover.” In filing that kind of lawsuit, it is proper to say something like, “the plaintiff is suing the defendant in trover to recover money damages for the television that plaintiff stored in defendant’s house and which defendant converted to his own possession by installing it in his den and subsequently refusing to return it to the plaintiff.” Although this example, which was only intended to show how the words “trover” and “conversion” relate to each other, makes a claim for money damages, that is not the only remedy for conversion. It is also proper to sue for return of the possessions, especially if they have sentimental value.
Note that a conversion claim is not only used when someone appropriates another person’s stuff. It is also correct to make a claim for conversion if someone storing things threw them away or gave them to someone else or otherwise made them unavailable to the owner.[iii]
See the Homeless Law Blog posts about court for information about bringing a contracts and/or torts case in civil court.
[i] It has been said that both of these tort claims are really the same when somebody takes and carries away another person’s possession. Wint. V. Alabama Eye and Tissue Bank, 675 So. 2d 383 (Ala. 1996).
[ii] This example is used to demonstrate that even though the word “homeowner” is generally being used in this section, the legal reasoning applies to any private favor-type of arrangement that is not as formal as having a fee-based storage deal.
[iii] To find cases involving conversions in the state where you live, look in a West case digest or a legal encyclopedia published by West using the topic “trover and conversion.” The digests and encyclopedias will show dozens of ways that people take control over other people’s things. They will also have lots of real-life examples of how people tried to get their stuff back or tried to prevent the person who was only supposed to store it from using it.