Have you ever had something stolen? Even if you know who stole it, sometimes it is hard to prove and if you do not want the police involved, what are your options? Minnesota recognizes civil liability for theft. Minnesota Statute Section 604.14 states “[a] person who steals personal property from another is civilly liable to the owner of the property for its value when stolen plus punitive damages of either $50 or up to 100% of its value when stolen, whichever is greater.”
There are limited court decisions interpreting Minnesota civil theft statute. Courts can rely on the criminal theft statutes to determine whether a defendant’s conduct is civil theft, even though “a criminal complaint, conviction, or guilty plea is not a prerequisite to liability.” Damon v. Groteboer, 937 F.Supp.2d. 1048, 1076 (D. Minn. 2013); quoting Popp v. Telecom, Inc. v. Sharecom, Inc., No. 1177, 2003 WL 1610789, at *9 (D. Minn. Mar. 20, 2003). Minnesota’s criminal theft statute states that “swindling, whether by artifice, trick, device, or any other means is considered theft.” In Damon v. Groteboer, the court held that an allegation by the plaintiff that he was fraudulently induced to purchase an office condo building fell within the ambit of the civil theft statute and was enough to defeat a motion to dismiss. Damon, 937 F.Supp.2d at 1077.
Although the statute allows for punitive damages, it was the legislature’s intent that every victim is entitled to full punitive award. Plaintiffs seeking a punitive award under the Minnesota civil theft statute must produce evidence that they are entitled to such an award. In re Conoreya, 459 B.R. 384 (D. Minn. 2011). However, a plaintiff that is seeking punitive damages can do so without receiving permission from the court to amend its complaint to seek punitive damages. OnePoint Solutions, LLC v. Borchert, 486 F.3d 342 (8th Cir. 2007).
Conversion is very similar to civil theft. Under Minnesota law, conversion is “an act of willful interference with [the personal property of another], done without lawful justification by which any person entitled thereto is deprived of use and possession.” Christensen v. Milibank Ins. Co., 658 N.W.2d 580, 585 (Minn. 2003). In order to willfully interfere with the property of another, the act must exercise the right of complete ownership control over the property. In other words, it must in some way deprive the owner of the property permanently and for an indefinite period of time. The Minnesota Supreme Court has stated that in order to form the intent necessary in a conversion claim there must be more than mere nonfeasance or negligence. However it is not necessary that the tortfeasor intended to commit what he or she knows to be a conversion.