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Case of the Week: Pikunse v. Kopchinski, 631 A.2d 1049 (1993)

Posted By Cliff Tuttle | August 7, 2010

No. 489

Earlier this week, I had a terrific group of lawyers attend my Landlord Tenant Litigation seminar at the Community College of Allegheny County North Hills campus.  I told them I would post information about some of the cases mentioned in the seminar.  And so,  I decided to start a new feature called “Case of the Week” to highlight interesting and useful cases.  Here’s the inaugural case:

Barbara was a waitress who was laid off at Christmas time.  She told her landlords about it and promised to catch up 0n the rent as soon as she found a new job.

In March, she came home late at night and the lock had been changed. She spent the night locked out.

The next day, she called one of landlords and was told, rather rudely, that it was his building and he could do anything he pleased.  So Barbara climbed through the window and changed the lock again. (Way to go, Barb!)

The Kopchinskis decided to make peace and change back the lock.  But it was only a temporary truce.  In April Barb  unlocked the door to an empty apartment.  She later learned that the Kopchinskis had put her belongings in storage for a short time and then put them at the curb for the trash pick up.

Barb sued the Kopchinskis for conversion.  They defended on the grounds that they thought the property was abandoned.  After all, they testified at trial, the Christmas Tree was still up (pretty normal in Pittsburgh, we interject) and there were dirty dishes and rotting food in the sink. They also claimed that they had visited at different times but could not contact her.

But the trial court was not impressed. It found the Kopchinski boys’ story to lack credibility.  So much so, that it awarded $7,139.00 in actual damages and $7,500.00 in punitive damages.

On appeal to the Superior Court, Chief Judge Rawley wrote that, while the measure of damages for conversion is the market value of the goods, it was not required that the valuation be precise.  ” . . . appellee’s household goods were thrown out by appellant tortfeasors, such that the fair market value of those goods could not be determined.”

“Appellants irrevocably disposed of appellee’s clothes, furniture, and appliances, as well as treasured photographs, books, and religious items. We will not preclude recovery merely because the damages awarded to appellee for  her loss were estimated by the trial court. Indeed, it is the traditional function of the fact finder in conversion actions to estimate damages.”

The Kopchinskis also challenged the punitive damages.  However, the Superior Court was of the opinion that the facts in this case were in line with the test for punitive damages set forth in Section 908(2) of the Restatement (Second) of Torts: “malicious, wanton, reckless, willful or oppressive.”

“While appellants contend that ‘at the very least, they thought that they were entitled to [appellee’s] personal property under some color of right,’ we observe that appellants did not keep the property, or even attempt to sell it to ‘satisfy the obligations’ of appellee. Rather, it is clear that, in retaliation for appellee’s failure to pay rent, appellants deliberately threw away items, such as furniture and appliances, which were clearly needed by appellee for everyday living. We are of the mind that in this regard, appellants acted, at best, with recklessindifference to appellee’s legal rights.

Perhaps even more significantly, however, appellants threw away items that, although devoid of any fair market value, were of tremendous sentimental value to their owner — photos, rosary beads, communion books, and cards which had been given to appellee by her mother or grandmother, now deceased. Appellants’ actions in this respect were, in our opinion, wanton and malicious. We therefore conclude that the  trial court properly exercised its discretion in awarding appellee punitive damages.”

Judgment affirmed.”



CLIFF TUTTLE has been a Pennsylvania lawyer for over 45 years and (inter alia) is a real estate litigator and legal writer. The posts in this blog are intended to provide general information about legal topics of interest to lawyers and consumers with a Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania focus. However, this information does not constitute legal advice and there is no lawyer-client relationship created when you read this blog. You are encouraged to leave comments but be aware that posted comments can be read by others. If you wish to contact me in privacy, please use the Contact Form located immediately below this message. I will reply promptly and in strict confidence.

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