Proving Damages in a Conversion Case

In Hamilton v. Holderman, No. M2015-02302-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 27, 2015), the Tennessee Court of Appeals affirmed a damages award in a conversion case.

In the underlying dispute, plaintiffs had rented a furnished house and barn to defendants, which the defendants argued they had orally agreed to buy. Plaintiffs filed a forcible entry and detainer warrant in general sessions court, and defendants eventually vacated the property. When defendants left, they took “certain furnishings and other personalty owned by [plaintiffs]” with them, and this suit for conversion followed.

Plaintiffs initially filed in general sessions court and were awarded $24,999 in damages, the full jurisdictional limit. Defendants appealed to circuit court, where a jury returned a verdict for plaintiffs in the amount of $40,000. Defendants appealed that verdict to the Court of Appeals, arguing that there was not “material evidence in the record to support the jury’s verdict of damages for $40,000.” The Court of Appeals affirmed the award.

The Court noted that plaintiffs presented the following evidence regarding the value of the property taken: plaintiff wife’s own testimony that the value of the goods taken was “a good $40,000;” plaintiffs’ daughter’s testimony that she increased insurance coverage on the contents of the home from $3,000 to $80,000 when she became concerned about defendants; a neighbor’s testimony that the house “was furnished real nice;” and a former tenant’s testimony regarding many large items and tools that were in the barn. Regarding this evidence, the Court stated:

[T]his Court has long held that an owner of personal property may provide opinion testimony to calculate the value of their own personal property. …Where, as here, the articles lost were household goods, furniture, wearing apparel, and other articles which had been acquired by the plaintiff over the years, the value of such articles is not to be estimated by what each item would bring if sold in the market, but by the more elastic standard of ‘value to the owner.’

(internal citations and quotations omitted). Based on this standard, the Court held that plaintiffs had presented sufficient evidence to sustain the jury verdict.

This case is a good one to have in your tool belt should you have a client who needs to prove personal property value for damages purposes but doesn’t have much hard evidence like photographs, makes and model numbers, or receipts. This attorney apparently did a good job of using the witnesses available to prove his client’s damages in this conversion case.