In U.S. law do practical distinctions exist between the torts of detinue, conversion (by detention), and trespass to chattels?

In particular, is it conceivable that each of those torts could be named as a separate cause of action in a single pleading on the same factual allegations? If so, how would the statement of cause and demand for relief differ for each tort?

Or if they would not be used in the same pleading, can you provide minimal examples that would discriminate between the most applicable tort?

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    Anytime claims overlap or have gray areas it is good to plead in the alternative. For example, trespass and nuisance are commonly pleaded in the alternative as are breach of contract and promissory estoppel and quantum meriut.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Nov 29, 2017 at 7:25

1 Answer 1


FYI, I'm not an attorney, this isn't legal advice, and you should seek an attorney in your jurisdiction if you have a real legal concern or potential case.


Detinue seeks recovery of a piece of property that has been wrongfully held or retained (distinguished from replevin which seeks recovery of property that has been wrongfully taken). Under detinue, the defendant received the property legally and the plaintiff never had to have the property in the first place (so, say you have something that I am supposed to receive, but I've never had it and you won't give it to me).


Conversion occurs when one purposely interferes with another's personal property. The plaintiff must show that he owns or has the right to have the item at the time it's interfered with, that the defendant's interference with it was intentional, that the interference deprived the plaintiff of possession or use of the item, and that the interference caused damages to the plaintiff.

Say I swipe a document off of your desk and walk out with it. Within 30 seconds, it would be unlikely you could claim conversion. Why? Because there had not yet been any damages to you. Now, if I had that document for three hours and you were supposed to file it in court for a deadline or something, and you could show I intentionally took it (aka did not mistakenly believe it was mine), you may then have a claim.

Also, conversion can happen if you receive an item from somebody who was not authorized to give it away from you.

Trespass to Chattels

This is an intentional and wrongful interference with another's possession of property. The difference between this and conversion is about the degree of interference. Trespass to chattels can be found where one merely challenges another's right of possession. However, if the offending party exercises "dominion and control" over the item, it's likely conversion.

To return to the document example, if I had it for those 30 seconds, you may not be able to claim conversion, as I stated, but you may be able to claim trespass to chattels in that situation.

Another example, for clarity's sake: someone steals your car and you recover it within 20 minutes. Probably trespass to chattels. Someone steals your car and sells it to another person. Probably conversion.

Single Cause of Action?

Detinue is almost in complete disuse, so you in fact may not need to worry about it. Most jurisdictions have statutes for the recovery of personal property which have largely superseded detinue. Detinue is an action to recover personal property belonging to the plaintiff. Trover is an action for the recovery of damages for the wrongful conversion of personal property. Mixed in with all this is replevin, which is an action where a party seeks the return of an item that was taken wrongfully pending the final determination by the court of its true owner (maintaining the status quo until it's figured out who should be entitled to keep it).

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    Modern practice would not distinguish between replevin and detinue (BTW, the "plain English" name for both is "claim and delivery"). Conversion is in common use but is an intentional tort in some states and a strict liability tort in others, it overlaps with civil theft. I can't think of an occasion where I've ever pleaded trespass to chattles in 20 years (joy riding maybe?), but it is still a viable tort in some places.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Nov 29, 2017 at 7:24
  • Interesting re: replevin/detinue. I knew it was not in common use, but not that it wasn't distinguished from replevin. Thanks for the input. And yeah, the example I was always given for trespass to chattels was joyriding in some neighbor's car.
    – A.fm.
    Commented Nov 29, 2017 at 7:29
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    In Colorado, replevin is codified in a court rule that gives it a broader definition than it had a common law. There is also an issue over whether temporary loss of use of chattle (i.e. loss of lease value) can still constitute conversion, reifying the temporary use of property as a property interest in and of itself. Civil theft which has a very broad modern definition of theft in Colorado, rather than the many fragmented common law offenses, also can fill the breach.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Nov 29, 2017 at 7:44
  • @ohwilleke or A.fm. Can you address the remedy side of the equation? Because from what I have found so far (which is nothing authoritative or decisive – hence the question) it sounds like the remedy for conversion is limited to money compensation for the value of the property, whereas under a trespass it is the "damage occasioned by the interference." So if someone takes my $500 computer for a week, and as a consequence I am unable to earn $2000 in wages, I could recover only $500 pleading conversion (and have to let them keep the computer!) but $2000 pleading trespass?
    – feetwet
    Commented Nov 29, 2017 at 16:35
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    @feetwet The modern trend is to pretty much have a one size fits all damages rule for all tort cases. I would be very surprised to see a modern court limit conversion damages to only the value of the property.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Nov 29, 2017 at 19:21

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