Stolen Property Liability


I bought a truck that turned out to be stolen. Do I have to return it?


Typically, conversion is a strict liability tort. Meaning if you possess stolen goods, then you are just as liable in civil court for conversion as though you were the person who stole the goods in the first place. There are many exceptions to this rule, however. The most common is the bona fide purchaser exception. If you can show that the person selling you the goods defrauded you/behaved in such a way that you had no actual or constructive knowledge that the item was stolen, you will be exempt from a claim of conversion. The “constructive knowledge” element is a bit vague – a judge or jury would have discretion to look at the facts and decide if you were truly innocent or should have known/guessed the item was not on the up and up. So, there is an element of risk in using a bona fide purchaser defense. No matter what, the person who had the item stolen will need to have mitigated their damages – it would not be fair for them to have knowledge of the theft and do nothing while the truck was sold. So, if they knew the truck was being sold (a social media marketplace, etc.) but did nothing for a long time while the sale processed, then that would be a defense to them trying to get the property back. In addition, if you innocently improved the property, it would be fair for you to ask for compensation for the value of the repairs. For example, if you put in new brakes and tires, then the rightful owner may be able to get the truck back but would likely be instructed by the judge to first compensate you for the price of the new brakes and tires.

Posted in