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Using the Common Law Remedies of Trespass and Conversion to Win

I’m David Holub, an attorney focusing on personal injury law in northwest Indiana.

Welcome to Personal Injury Primer, where we break down the law into simple terms, provide legal tips, and discuss topics related to personal injury law.

Not long ago we had someone call with a question about what to do about a neighbor who was spraying chemicals and caused some of those chemicals to kill plants on the caller’s property. The caller wanted to know their legal options.

To answer that question, it is helpful to start by thinking about the term “trespass”. Most likely everyone’s heard the term “trespass” or has encountered a sign that reads “trespassers will be prosecuted”. Trespass is defined as knowingly entering another person’s property without permission. A trespass can be both a civil wrong, something you sue someone about, and a criminal wrong, something a person might go to jail over.

But how does trespass fit with regard to chemicals coming onto someone’s property and doing damage?

Well consider this scenario. Suppose you own real estate with a woods on the property containing large oak and walnut trees. Now suppose your neighbor has trees on his property too, and his trees are close to your trees. Suppose you neighbor cuts down his own trees and sells them for a profit. Then when you leave town for a vacation, the neighbor comes onto your property and cuts down several trees on your property and sells the lumber he harvested from your property.

In doing all these things your neighbor trespassed. Trespass in simple terms is an interference with the right to possess, use and enjoy real estate. The damages flowing from a trespass could be significant.

In the scenario we just outlined another legal wrong was committed in addition to trespass. That legal wrong is called conversion. The neighbor converted the trees that you owned and took them for his own. That is both a civil wrong, and a criminal wrong.

In a civil case the damages would be the value of the trees that were removed, as well as the value of the diminishment of the real estate that can no longer be sold for a high price because the trees are missing.

So, if you are thinking that trespass and conversion are important parts of the law, you’d be right.

There are many fact situations under the law where trespass and conversion theories of recovery can be useful.

For example, what if your neighboring property owner stores canisters filled with toxic chemicals on their property and those toxic chemicals leak out and come onto your property? That’s trespass if the neighbor knows of the leak. Even if the chemicals leak underground that can be a trespass.

If the chemicals give off toxic fumes and those fumes come onto your property that can be a trespass.

So, the cause of action for trespass can be useful if you’re suing someone for hazardous chemical leaks, or your suing a hazardous waste landfill because products from that landfill leaked out into the groundwater and contaminated your property.

You’ll find people making allegations of trespass sometimes where an underground storage tank at a gas station is leaking.

So back to the caller and the question about chemicals sprayed by his neighbor killing his plants. Knowingly spraying chemicals that can be expected to drift onto a neighbor’s property can be a trespass, or it might amount to ordinary negligence caused by a lack of reasonable care.

Why are we sharing this information? Just to give you a look behind the scenes and provide information that might prove useful in considering your legal options if somehow someone intentionally or negligently takes your property, or interferes with the use of your property, or damages your property.

I hope you found this information helpful. If you have questions about your legal rights if you get hurt due to the carelessness of another person, or as a result of substandard medical care, or due to a product defect, construction injury, or any other type of personal injury, please give us a call at (219) 736-9700. You can also learn more about us by visiting our website at DavidHolubLaw.com – while there make sure you request a copy of our book “Fighting for Truth”.