This article was posted on Monday, Apr 01, 2013

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Indiana.  An appellate court agrees a landlord who “trespassed” against his tenant’s personal property by piling all of her things up in the backyard must pay her $6,000 for the property lost or damaged in the unlawful eviction.

The landlord leased an apartment to the tenant and allowed the tenant’s boyfriend to move in with her. Under their oral lease agreement, the tenant had to pay the landlord $550 per month in rent by the seventh day of each month.  The tenant fell behind in the rent seven months into the lease term.

The tenant informed her landlord they would move out but did not provide the landlord with a date by which they expected to vacate.  The landlord spoke with the tenant on Aug. 20, 2009, thus he knew they were still in possession of the apartment. The landlord entered the apartment a few days later without obtaining an eviction order and removed the all of the tenant’s property from the apartment.  The tenant said her landlord placed some of their property — including property she moved onto a porch in anticipation of moving out — in a large “heap” in the backyard.  Some of their personal property was broken, and other items were “lost” after being removed from the house.

The landlord admitted he informed the tenants he would “throw their property over the railing” if they did not remove their property from the apartment. The tenant and her boyfriend sued the landlord for “trespassing” against their personal property and unlawfully disposing of their belongings. 

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The small claims court found in the tenants’ favor and awarded them a judgment for $6,000 in damages plus costs and interest against their former landlord.  The judge said they did not abandon the apartment and therefore the landlord “trespassed against their personal property” and was liable for the damages.  The landlord appealed the trial court’s decision. The landlord argues on appeal they abandoned the apartment and therefore he did not commit a trespass against their property.

In order to prove a trespass to chattels (property) case, the injured-party-plaintiff must prove the defendant-landlord (1) “dispossessed plaintiff of plaintiff’s chattel;” (2) impaired the chattel’s condition, quality, or value; (3) deprived plaintiff of the use of the chattel for a substantial time; or (4) harmed some other thing in which the plaintiff had a legally protected interest.

But if the defendant in a trespass to chattel case can prove the injured plaintiff abandoned the property before it was disposed of, the defendant will not be held liable for any damages to the abandoned property. And in order to prove “abandonment” as an affirmative defense in a trespass case, the defendant must prove the plaintiff had both the intent to abandon and actually “relinquished” control over the personal property.

In this case, the landlord was required to present sufficient evidence to convince the court that “a reasonable person would conclude that the tenants had abandoned the apartment and their personal property with intentional relinquishment and with no intention to reclaim the property” in order to prevail.

But the trial court was not convinced. It concluded the tenants did not abandon the apartment or relinquish control over their personal property, and therefore the landlord was liable for the damages and lost property as a result of his trespass.

Since the tenant and her boyfriend did not abandon the property and the landlord did not bother to obtain an eviction order based on their nonpayment of rent, the lease was not terminated. Consequently, the landlord did not have a legal right to enter the apartment and remove their property.

The appellate court affirms the trial court’s decision and agrees the landlord trespassed against the tenant’s property and the value of the property lost and damaged was $6,000 even though the landlord claimed the property was not worth the amount they alleged. 

The appellate court also agrees the tenant and her boyfriend did not need to prove “the amount of damages suffered to a mathematical certainty,” and there was sufficient evidence to establish the amount awarded by the court was reasonable.

The appellate court agrees the television set, computer, furniture, clothes, tools, and business supplies, as well as $800 in cash were worth the $6,000 awarded by the trial court.

Lesson: This landlord’s self-help adventure cost him $6,000, an amount representing the value of the property he unlawfully removed from his tenant’s apartment after she failed to pay rent.  It is much easier  and safer  to go to court and obtain an eviction order than defend against this type of case.  The landlord knew the tenant did not abandon her apartment and apparently acted out of anger over the unpaid rent.

Info:   John Pagorek, Appellant-Defendant, v. Adrienne Garippo and Jimmy Warren, Appellees-Plaintiffs. No. 45A03-1005-SC-243Court of Appeals of Indiana.  April 29, 2011.   

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