Too often in cases involving stolen property, subrogating carriers in North Carolina do not look any further than the actual thieves for potential subrogation targets. For a variety of reasons, even if they are identified and apprehended, the thieves may not be viable subrogation targets. However, where the sale of the stolen property can be traced, you may also have a claim against the entity that purchases that stolen property even if the purchase was in good faith. In many instances, the buyer of the stolen goods is a much more viable subrogation target than the thief who sells it to them.
North Carolina, like many other jurisdictions, still recognizes a cause of action for conversion by the rightful owner of stolen property against an entity that has in good faith purchased the stolen property from a third party that stole it. The North Carolina courts have held that a good faith purchaser of goods from a converter is also a converter and must answer in damages to the true owner because one who purchases goods from a thief does not acquire the right to those goods over the true owner.
For subrogation purposes, this theory may be particularly useful when dealing with the sale of stolen scrap metal to a scrap yard or recycling facility. This theory effectively makes the purchaser of stolen goods strictly liable to the rightful owner regardless of the reasonableness of their conduct in purchasing the stolen goods. For purposes of a conversion claim, the only thing that a plaintiff must prove to establish liability is that the plaintiff was the rightful owner of the stolen goods and that the defendant purchased those stolen goods.
In addition to providing an alternative potential theory against purchasers of stolen goods to a common law conversion claim, the record keeping requirements of the Act also make proving a conversion claim much easier. In most instances, the purchasers own records are sufficient to establish a prima facie case that a conversion has occurred.
Of course for a successful subrogation recovery, in addition to proving liability, it is important that the defendant have either assets or insurance coverage to recover from. Conversion is an intentional tort and good faith purchasers of stolen items may not have coverage for this under traditional liability insurance policies. However, many insurance carriers now offer specialty liability insurance coverage to recycling facilities and scrap metal processors which covers them against conversion claims. More sophisticated entities are likely to have this type of coverage in place.
If you find yourself with a case involving stolen scrap metal in a jurisdiction other than North Carolina, you should look to see if your jurisdiction recognizes a claim for conversion against good faith purchasers of stolen property and also whether it has a statute that governs the purchase of scrap metal as these may both provide viable avenues for subrogation.

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