Law School Case Brief
Nat'l Retailers Mut. Ins. Co. v. Gambino - 1 N.J. Super. 627, 64 A.2d 927 (Super. Ct. 1948)
It is an elementary principle of law that no one can be deprived of his property except by his own voluntary act or by operation of law. The thief who steals a chattel acquires no title by such wrongful taking. The subsequent possession by the thief is a continuing wrong; and if during its continuance the wrongdoer enhances the value of the chattel by labor upon it or adds or substitutes new appliances or parts, the chattel in its enhanced value or changed condition with its substituted or added parts still belongs to the owner of the original chattel, and the original owner may retake it. And if the wrongdoer sells the chattel to an innocent purchaser, the latter obtains no title from the trespasser because the wrongdoer had none to give. The owner may still retake it in its improved or changed state.
A thief stole insured's 1947 Plymouth sedan and replaced its motor with one from a 1946 model that the thief owned. The thief then sold the vehicle to a car dealer, who in turn sold it to defendant buyer. Plaintiff insurer paid the theft claim of its insured, taking an assignment of rights in the vehicle. Plaintiff filed a suit in replevin against defendant seeking the return of the vehicle. Defendant contended that he was entitled to keep the motor unit because it had never belonged to plaintiff's assignor.
Was the buyer of the stolen car entitled to keep the motor unit in question?
The Court awarded possession of the stolen vehicle to plaintiff insurer, who had been assigned the rights of its insured upon payment of a theft claim. The Court found that the motor unit, owned and installed in the stolen vehicle by the thief, became the property of the owner of the stolen vehicle and hence, defendant could not lay valid claim to it. According to the Court, the enhancement to the stolen car was made prior to the sale to the dealer, who could pass no better title than it acquired.
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