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Tort Basics: Trespass, Nuisance, and Conversion

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Intentional Torts to Property

Intentional torts may be committed against property. Here are some of the more common ones.

Trespass

There are two types of trespass: trespass to land and trespass to chattels.

Trespass to land is the intentional and unauthorized invasion of real property. The relevant intent for this claim is the intent to enter the property. So, a person who unknowingly crosses from his own property to an adjacent plot may be liable for trespass even if he did not know that the land belonged to another. Trespass to land may occur when a person or object, such as litter, enters the property.

Trespass to chattel is an intentional interference with a plaintiff's right of possession to personal property. This may occur if a defendant damages the property or deprives the plaintiff of possession of the property.

Nuisance

A nuisance is an unreasonable and substantial interference with the use and/or enjoyment of land that does not involve a physical trespass. Here is an example of a municipal nuisance statute.

Example - Burien (WA) Municipal Code § 8.45.020
Nuisance means the existence, without limitation, of any of the following conditions:

a. Trash-Covered Premises: Any premises containing trash or abandoned materials, except that kept in garbage cans or containers maintained for regular collection;

b. Dangerous Structures: Any dangerous, decaying, unkempt, falling or damaged dwelling fence, or other structure;

c. Potential Vermin Habitat or Fire Hazard: Any accumulation of material on a property including, but not limited to, animal matter, ashes, bottles, boxes, broken stone, building materials which are not properly stored or neatly piled, cans, cement, crates, empty barrels, dead animals or animal waste, glass, litter, mattresses or bedding, old appliances or equipment or any parts thereof, furniture, iron or other scrap metal, packing cases, packing material, plaster, plastic, rags, wire, yard waste or debris or other objects which endanger property or public safety, or constitute a fire hazard or vermin habitat; provided that nothing herein shall prevent the temporary retention of waste in approved, covered receptacles;

d. Junk Vehicles: Any wrecked, inoperable, abandoned or disassembled trailer, house trailer, boat, tractor, automobile or other vehicle, or any parts thereof. A junk vehicle includes apparently inoperable, immobile, disassembled or extensively damaged vehicles. Evidence of inoperability and damage includes, but is not limited to a buildup of debris that obstructs use, a broken window or windshield, a missing wheel, a flat tire, a non-functional motor or transmission, missing bumpers, or missing license plates; provided nothing herein shall prevent the keeping or storage of any vehicle on private property which is screened from view;

e. Attractive Nuisances: Any attractive nuisance which may prove detrimental to children whether in or on a building, on the premises of a building, or upon an unoccupied lot, which is left in any place exposed or accessible to children. This includes unused or abandoned refrigerators, freezers, or other large appliances or equipment or any parts thereof, abandoned motor vehicles, any structurally unsound or unsafe fence or edifice; any unsecured or abandoned excavation, pit, well, cistern, storage tank or shaft; and any lumber, trash. debris or vegetation which may prove a hazard for minors;

f. Obstructions to the Public Right of Way: Use of property abutting a public street or sidewalk or use of a public street or sidewalk which causes any obstruction to traffic or to open access to the streets or sidewalks; provided that this subsection shall not apply to events, parades, or the use of the streets or public rights of way when authorized by the city. This section includes the existence of drainage onto or over any sidewalk, street or public right of way, and the existence of any debris or plant growth on sidewalks adjacent to any property;

g. Vegetation: Any noxious or toxic weed or uncultivated plant, weeds or tall grass which may be a fire hazard, or any tree which is in danger of falling and creates a substantial risk of damage or injury;

h. Illegal Dumping: Dumping of any type by any person on public or private property not registered as a legal dump site; and

i. Dumping in Waterways: Dumping, depositing, placing or leaving of any garbage, ashes, debris, gravel, earth, rock, stone or other material upon the banks, channels, beds or bars of any navigable water, or the felling of any tree or trees, so that the same shall in whole or in part project within the high water bank of any navigable watercourse, or the casting, placing, depositing or leaving of any logs, roots, snags, stumps or brush upon the banks or in the bed or channel of any navigable water course.

Nuisances may be considered as private or public nuisances. A private nuisance intrudes on a person's use and enjoyment of his land. A public nuisance intrudes on the public comfort, peace, health and safety of the community.

Example - Seattle (WA) Municipal Code § 10.09.030
A "public nuisance" is a condition which wrongfully annoys, injures, or endangers the comfort, repose, health or safety of others, or unlawfully interferes with, obstructs or tends to obstruct, or render dangerous for passage, any public park, square, street or highway, or any other public place; or in any way renders other persons insecure in life, or in the use of property, and which affects equally the rights of an entire community or neighborhood, although the extent of damage may be unequal.

The government may abate public nuisances. Usually, a private person may not act against a public nuisance unless the nuisance specifically injures him. In a nuisance suit, courts will weigh the utility of the activity causing the nuisance and the burden of preventing such conduct against the nature and severity of the harm.

Conversion

The tort of conversion is similar to the tort of trespass to chattel. Both require a defendant to interfere with another's right of possession in personal property. Likewise, a defendant must have intended to exercise control over the property in a manner inconsistent with the owner's rights. It is not required that the defendant know that the property belonged to another. However, for conversion, the interference must be so serious, in terms of duration and extensiveness of use, that it warrants that the defendant pay the personal property's full value.

Copyright 1999 FindLaw Inc.

Last updated: Nov 1, 1999




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