Trespass to Chattels is the act of interfering with another’s enjoyment of his property, especially the act of being present on another’s land without lawful excuse.
The three torts of trespass to chattels, conversion and detinue protect the possessor of a chattel from wrongful interference therewith. This area of the law of torts is, for historical reasons.
For purposes of exposition, however, each tort must be considered separately.
This tort maybe defined as a direct and wrongful interference with a chattel in the possession of the plaintiff, such interference being either intentional (the normal case) or negligent. The interests of the plaintiff which the tort protects are:
- His interest in retaining possession of the chattel;
- His interest in the physical condition of the chattel; and
- His interest in protecting the chattel against intermeddling. See the case of Forson V. Koens (1975) G.L.R. 497 at p. 484;
Acts of trespass – Trespass to Chattels
Trespass to chattels may take various forms such as destroying; See the case of Sheldrick V. Abery (1793) 170 E.R. 278 (killing an animal), damaging; see the case of Fouldes V. Willoughby (1841) 151 E.R. 1153 at p. 1157, per Alderson B. (scratching the panel of a coach); Slater V. swann (1730) 93 E.R. 906 (beating an animal); or merely using goods; see the case of Penfolds Wines Pty Ltd V. Elliot (1946) 74 C.L.R. 204 at pp. 214, 215.
(driving a car, riding a horse or filling a bottle), or wrongfully moving them from one place to another; see the case of Kirk V. Gregory (1876) 34 L. T. 488 (moving rings from one room to another); G.W.K. Vs. Dunlop Rubber Co. (1926) 42 T.L.R 376 (removing a tyre from a car on show and replacing it with another.)
A Nigerian case in which there was an actionable trespass to a chattel is Davies V. Lagos City Council (1973) 10 CCHCJ 151.
There the defendant council had granted the plaintiff a hackney carriage license to operate a taxi-cab in the Lagos area.
The plaintiff was well aware that the permit was for his exclusive use and was not transferable, but he nonetheless caused it to be transferred to a third party, who operated a taxi-cab on the strength of it.
On learning of this, certain officials of the council, in the purported exercise of their power to revoke the permit, seized the plaintiff’s taxi and detained it at the L.C.C. pound.
In an action for trespass brought by the plaintiff, Adefarasin J. held that the council was entitled to revoke the plaintiff’s permit for non-compliance with the regulations governing the use of hackney carriage licenses, but it was not entitled to seize the vehicle or otherwise take possession of it. The Council was therefore liable to trespass, the learned judge said:
“[The plaintiff] is entitled to succeed…in trespass…There may be a trespass without the infliction of any material damage by a mere taking or asportation. In my view, the seizure of the plaintiff’s vehicle without just cause…is a wrongful act on account of which all the defendants taking part in it are jointly and severally liable.“