The Indiana Court of Appeals warned in a criminal conversion case Thursday that self-help remedies are perilous and potentially expensive, and it’s best to not take justice into your own hands.
Jorge Chiqui Chaca sued Auto Liquidation Center Inc. and Majid Zojaji after Zojaji reposed Chaca’s car for nonpayment and later sold it at an auction. Chaca purchased the 2008 Dodge Charger from ALC in November 2011 and was current on his installment payments when Zojaji mistakenly believed Chaca had missed a payment. Zojaji attempted to disable the Charger using a GPS device installed in the car. The device was removed two days later by Chaca’s mechanic after Chaca’s wife brought it in for driving issues. The mechanic removed the GPS device because it was damaging the car.
After Zojaji repossessed the vehicle, Chaca was able to prove he was current on payments, but Zojaji then said he was repossessing the vehicle because he had disabled the GPS device in violation of the purchase agreement. He never returned any of the private property inside the vehicle before selling it at auction for $10,400. Zojaji used a blank limited power-of-attorney form Chaca had signed in order to obtain a clean title.
A jury ruled in favor of Chaca on his complaint for criminal conversion, assault general damages and a violation of the Truth in Lending Act. The jury awarded $45,883.86 in damages for the conversion claim, and the trial court entered a final judgment of more than $121,000, which included prejudgment interest and attorney fees.
The COA affirmed in Auto Liquidation Center, Inc., and Majid Zojaji (a/k/a Mike Zojaji), individually v. Jorge Chiqui Chaca,
“In this case, even if Zojaji initially repossessed the car due to a genuine misunderstanding as to the allegedly missed payment or the removal of the GPS device, once those misunderstandings were clarified, Zojaji simply had no reason — contractual or otherwise — to keep Jorge’s car,” Chief Judge Nancy Vaidik wrote in affirming the criminal conversion conviction.
The car sold at auction for $10,400 and was originally listed for sale by ALC at $18,900, and the personal property inside ranged in value from $543 to $690, resulting in a range between $10,943 and $19,590. When these amounts are trebled, as authorized by statute, the jury award falls within that range. The jury’s award of nearly $46,000 was clearly within the range supported by the evidence, Vaidik noted.
The judges remanded for an award of appellate attorney fees to Chaca.
“As a final note: justice is better dispensed in a courtroom and not in one’s own hands. Self-help remedies are perilous and potentially expensive. When self-help is attempted, a jury or judge decides the appropriateness or inappropriateness of the actions regardless of how justified the actor may have thought his actions were. As we see here, the risks of paying damages, treble damages, pre-judgment interest, attorney’s fees, appellate attorney’s fees, and costs are not worth the possible benefits of sidestepping the court system,” Vaidik wrote.