Plaintiff’s Damages Not Limited By Amount Specified in Complaint

Where 23 months had passed between the filing of the complaint and the conversion of a truck, and where plaintiff sought “such other relief as he may be entitled to” in his ad damnum clause, the trial court did not err by awarding him a sum much larger than the amount specified in his complaint.

In Parker v. Clayton, No. M2017-02556-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Sept. 10, 2019), plaintiff filed a conversion claim related to his former friend taking possession of his truck. According to plaintiff, he and defendant had been friends for many years. When plaintiff was preparing to have surgery, he had to take time away from his work as a commercial truck driver. Around this time, defendant asked plaintiff for help getting his CDL. Plaintiff believed defendant already had some knowledge about operating a truck, so he offered to have defendant essentially work under him for a period of time with plaintiff’s former trucking employer, and plaintiff and defendant would split the profits made. To facilitate this arrangement, however, plaintiff had to add defendant’s name to his truck’s title. The title was changed to reflect both plaintiff and defendant as owners, and the transfer was noted as a gift by the clerk. According to plaintiff, the truck was to be titled back to plaintiff alone once defendant obtained his CDL. Plaintiff and defendant also opened a joint account in which money from their employer could be deposited and divided. Sometime during this time period, plaintiff took his RV to defendant’s property and began living there with defendant’s permission.

When plaintiff and defendant went out onto the road together, plaintiff stated that it quickly became clear that defendant would not get his CDL. Defendant allegedly had little to no knowledge about operating the truck, did not read the required materials, drank to excess and disappeared for multiple days, and refused to take part in safety checks. When the two returned from this stint on the road, plaintiff told defendant that “he would pay [defendant] off” because defendant would never obtain a CDL. Thereafter, defendant made a $7,000 withdrawal from the joint account, leaving only $28, and he forged plaintiff’s signature and had the truck titled only to him. When plaintiff went to defendant’s property to retrieve his RV, motorcycle, and other personal property, defendant refused to allow him to take the items without first giving defendant the keys to the truck. Plaintiff gave defendant the keys, then filed this conversion claim 10 months later.

Defendant alleged that plaintiff had given him the truck as a gift, but the trial court found him to be not credible. The trial court concluded that plaintiff had proven the elements of conversion, and it awarded plaintiff $225,200.99 in damages. Defendant appealed and the Court of Appeals affirmed, with a slight modification of the damages amount.

Interestingly, defendant did not appeal the finding that plaintiff had proven conversion, but instead appealed the finding that defendant had not shown that the truck was a gift. “A person contending an inter vivos gift was made to him or her carries the burden of proving (1) the donor intended to make the gift and (2) the donor delivered the gift to the donee.” (internal citation omitted). Here, the Court found that defendant failed to show that plaintiff intended to gift him the truck. The Court noted that plaintiff’s testimony directly contradicted the gift theory and that the trial court had found plaintiff “more credible” than defendant. The Court also ruled that the way in which defendant gained the keys to the truck did not prove delivery “by clear and convincing evidence.” The finding that the truck was not a gift was thus affirmed.

Defendant also asserted that plaintiff should have been limited to $50,000 in damages, as that was the amount contained in his ad damnum clause. The trial court had awarded plaintiff just over $225,000, including $198,000 for lost wages, $20,000 for the value of the truck, $6,000 for the value of personal property that was in the truck, and around $1,100 “to balance the parties’ financial responsibility based on their agreement to split income and expenses during the training period.” The lost wages portion was based on plaintiff’s testimony that with the truck he could make $10,000 a month, but since the conversion he had only been able to make $4,000, resulting in a loss of $6,000 per month. The amounts awarded for the value of the truck and personal property were in lieu of plaintiff’s request in the complaint to have the truck and property returned to him.

The Court conceded that “a judgment or decree in excess of the amount pleaded is void to the extent of the excess,” but it pointed out that defendant was ignoring a portion of plaintiff’s complaint. (internal citation and quotation omitted). While the complaint specified $50,000, it also asked for “such other relief he may be entitled to in the premises whether general or special.” The Court reasoned:

When [plaintiff] filed the complaint in June 2015, only ten months had passed since [defendant] had taken possession of the truck, and his lost wages at that time, based on the WHEREFORE clause, were just $50,000. It was nearly another two years, however, before the parties were able to try this case. With each month that passed, [plaintiff] suffered additional damages in the form of lost wages. [Defendant] knew that [plaintiff] was seeking to recover his lost earnings, and he could have limited [plaintiff’s] damages by simply returning the truck. By describing the damages he was seeking with specificity in the complaint, [plaintiff] placed [defendant] on notice, and [defendant] cannot in good faith express surprise when the court awarded [plaintiff] the damages he proved.

The Court found that the lost wages from the time of the conversion until the filing of the complaint should be valued at $50,000 pursuant to the complaint, but that the remaining months of lost wages should be calculated at the $6,000/month rate. Thus, the overall award was reduced by $10,000, meaning plaintiff was awarded $215,200.99. The trial court’s verdict was affirmed as modified.

While this case contained no actual analysis of conversion law, it presents a well-reasoned approach to calculating conversion damages, especially in a case that has taken a considerable time to get to trial.

NOTE: To aid lawyers in giving clients guidance about how long it takes to receive an opinion after oral argument in the appellate courts, we are going to start sharing that information with readers. Please understand that the length of time that elapses between oral argument and the date the opinion is released is dependent on a multitude of factors, not the least of which is the complexity of the issues presented. In this case, the opinion was released two months after oral argument.