A jury’s conclusion that a car repair and painting business was liable for conversion after it sold a classic car that its owner refused to pick up for months has been reversed on appeal in a matter of first impression.
The owner of the 1970 Ford Mustang claimed the business wrongfully used the process outlined in the Virginia Abandoned Vehicle Act because he wasn’t yet satisfied with the work that had been done and he hadn’t received notice that the abandoned vehicle process had been initiated.
A jury agreed and awarded him $78,500 in compensatory damages.
But the Court of Appeals of Virginia pumped the brakes.
“Although we find that [the owner] had standing to assert his conversion claim, we conclude the court erred in affirming the jury verdict in his favor,” Judge Mary Grace O’Brien wrote.
The case is CB & PB Enterprises, et al., v. McCants (VLW 023-7-019). Chief Judge Marla Graff Decker and Senior Judge James W. Haley Jr. joined O’Brien’s decision.
In January 2017, Bryant McCants’ 1970 Ford Mustang was transported to a Maaco Collision Repair and Auto Painting business owned by CB & PB Enterprises. Maaco’s part owner, Hanson Butler, operated the Maaco and had worked on McCants’ cars — including the Mustang — in the past.
Butler told McCants the work was finished in July 2017. McCants, however, wasn’t satisfied, so Butler repainted the Mustang. McCants still refused to pick up the car.
After Butler made several attempts to contact McCants, a used car dealer inspected the Mustang on McCants’ behalf in late September 2017. The dealer said the Mustang still needed painting and provided no information about McCants’ intentions.
Butler then started the process to have the Mustang declared abandoned under the Virginia Abandoned Vehicle Act. By that time, McCants had paid Maaco for the work and Butler hadn’t charged him with storage fees because he was a regular customer.
In October, the DMV mailed notice to McCants’ address of record in Michigan that the abandoned vehicle process had been initiated and that he must take the car by the end of the month to avoid it being sold or scrapped.
McCants denied getting the DMV notice but couldn’t refute that notice had been sent. The Michigan address was his parents’ house, but McCants claimed that Maaco had billed him at a Virginia address in the past.
McCants didn’t pick up the Mustang. Butler sold it to a Maaco mechanic in January 2018.
McCants sued Butler and Maaco. His complaint alleged, among other things, a violation of the Virginia Consumer Protection Act and conversion.
The jury found Butler and Maaco jointly liable for conversion and awarded $78,500 in compensatory damages to McCants.
Butler and Maaco appealed after the court denied their motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict.
Butler and Maaco contended that McCants lacked standing to pursue a conversion claim because he had waived all property rights in the car pursuant to the Virginia Abandoned Vehicle Act.
O’Brien wasn’t convinced.
“Although Butler and Maaco argue that McCants lacked standing because he ‘had no property right in the [Mustang] at the time he filed the lawsuit,’ the question of standing is whether the party had a property interest at the time of the alleged conversion,” O’Brien explained.
Here, there was no dispute that McCants owned the Mustang when Butler began the abandoned vehicle process.
“Given that a number of weeks had passed during which Butler was frequently communicating, by various means, that McCants should remove the Mustang from Maaco’s property, it was evident that Maaco had withdrawn consent by the time of Butler’s final text message to McCants on September 25, 2017, to which McCants never responded.”
— Judge Mary Grace O’Brien
“Although McCants lost title by the time he filed his lawsuit, he was entitled to immediate possession of the Mustang at the time of the alleged conversion and thus had standing to assert the claim,” the judge wrote.
Conversion requires evidence of a wrongful exercise or assumption of authority over property that deprived the owner of possession, or an act of dominion wrongfully exerted in denial of the owner’s right, or inconsistent with it.
Butler and Maaco said no reasonable jury could conclude they failed to follow the requirements of the Virginia Abandoned Vehicle Act. McCants, meanwhile, said there was still work to complete on the Mustang and he wasn’t charged a storage fee.
O’Brien agreed with Butler and Maaco, explaining that the statute only requires that a vehicle “remain for more than 48 hours” on the property without the property owner’s consent.
“The evidence established that Maaco no longer consented to the presence of the Mustang on its property,” O’Brien wrote. “Given that a number of weeks had passed during which Butler was frequently communicating, by various means, that McCants should remove the Mustang from Maaco’s property, it was evident that Maaco had withdrawn consent by the time of Butler’s final text message to McCants on September 25, 2017, to which McCants never responded.”
Finally, O’Brien said no evidence showed that Butler acted without Maaco’s authorization or failed to follow statutory requirements.
“McCants’s ownership interest in the Mustang ended on October 31, 2017, when he failed to reclaim or remove the vehicle as instructed by the DMV in accordance with Code § 46.2-1202(B),” the judge wrote. “Because McCants failed to prove a ‘wrongful assumption or exercise of the right of ownership’ over the Mustang prior to his loss of the ownership interest … the jury verdict in favor of his conversion claim was plainly wrong and without evidentiary support,” the judge wrote.