Pearson v. Dodd

United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit, 1969.

410 F.2d 701, cert. denied, 395 U.S. 947, 89 S.Ct. 2021, 23 L.Ed.2d 465 (1969).

Prosser, p. 78-81


Facts: Former staffers of Senator Dodd secretly took files from his office, photocopied them, and then replaced them.Dodd sues the newspaper columnists who published articles based on those files for conversion and invasion of privacy.The District Court granted partial summary judgment to Dodd on the conversion theory.The case went to the DC Circuit on interlocutory appeal.


Issue: Do the facts support a summary judgment on the action for conversion?


Rule: In order for conversion to occur, some property must be interfered with in a ďcomplete or very substantialĒ way.


Analysis: The court says that the documents themselves couldnít have been converted, because they were returned in useable condition.The court then considers whether the documents could be considered intellectual property that could be compromised by being merely seen and then returned.The court decides that the records that were copied, consisting of letters from constituents and office documents, are not intellectual property.


Conclusion: There is no conversion; the court overturns the partial summary judgment of the District Court.


Notes and Questions


1.     It sounds like this is a mostly outdated tort.Even in 1969, it was almost the forgotten tort, and even when it was brought up, in the end it didnít really apply.

2.     The difference between conversion and trespass to chattels is that conversion means you recover the market price of the item converted, but you donít get the item itself back.

3.     Does conversion lie in these cases?

A.   I see why this is not conversion: the defendant did not take control of the property, she just moved it around.

B.    I donít see how this case and the first case are that different, unless the warehouse is so far away that going and getting the goods would be more expensive than the value of the goods themselves.

C.   If the defendant does not notify the plaintiff, it makes more sense as a conversion.

D.   This seems like the clearest form of conversion.This, more than the other three cases, sounds like ďcivil theftĒ.

E.    The fire certainly results in a complete deprivation of the plaintiffís property rights.

4.     This is also known as asportation.It means carrying property away.I suppose the main part of the damages would be the cost of getting the property back where it was.There may also be an element of damages to make up for the lost use of the property.

5.     So if you use a chattel in a way you werenít authorized to and you mess it up badly, you could be liable for the entire replacement cost of that chattel.So watch out!

6.     If removing the spleen and just throwing it out is not conversion, then I donít believe using it to do research would constitute conversion.Either way, the doctors are completely depriving the plaintiff of the use of the spleen, such as it is.We might suppose, however, that if the spleen were being removed as part of treatment for a disease, it had no value to the plaintiff or even negative value.I donít think the plaintiff would have a case under the tort of conversion, but they might be able to sue for something else.On the other hand, I suppose the plaintiff could argue that the doctors and commercial developer deprived the patient of the use of the cells that turned out to be valuable.The defendants could then argue that if they had to pay for the patientís cells, they would have used someone elseís cells.What about next of kinís property interest in body parts of a corpse?In a way, the corpse of someone is a chattel that is useful to the decedentís family.For many people, burying the body intact is helpful to put closure on the personís death.Therefore, for the same reason that you could convert a coffin, I think conversion could lie with a corpse.


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