“Replevin” is the epitome of legalese. It’s Latin mixed with French. It’s not used in everyday conversation. But it is often thrown around in bankruptcy cases as if everyone knows exactly what it means.
The truth is most people don’t know what it is.
So what is replevin? According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, replevin is “an action originating in common law and now largely codified by which a plaintiff having a right in personal property which is claimed to be wrongfully taken or detained by the defendant seeks to recover possession of the property and sometimes to obtain damages for the wrongful detention.”
Breaking this definition down is helpful. It’s a legal action. It is brought by a plaintiff who believes the defendant has wrongfully taken (stolen) or detained (failed to return) a piece of personal property (which means any sort of thing, but not land). The plaintiff wants the property back, and may also want paid for the hassle.
Right now, there is an unusual case pending in the Wisconsin Supreme Court that provides a good example of how a replevin action actually works.
In 2001, thieves broke into the old Monarch Plastic Products factory on Milwaukee’s lower east side and stole a disassembled French sports car that its elderly owner had been trying to restore since 1967. The car, a 1938 Talbot Lago T150 C teardrop coupe, was worth around $7 million.
Not only was the car stolen, so were all the documents and spare parts related to it. Other valuable items in the factory-turned-garage were not touched. There was no sign of a forced entry, but in a sinister turn of events the phone lines to the owner’s house were cut the same day the car was stolen.
In 2005, the car’s owner passed away. He left his entire estate, including the rights to the stolen car, to his cousin, Richard “Skip” Mueller. A few years later, Mueller sold a majority share of the right to own the car to Joseph L. Ford III, who has experience tracking down rare stolen cars.
Then things went quiet, and it seemed like the car was gone forever. But in 2016, the authorities alerted Mueller and Ford that someone was trying to title a now completely restored Talbot with the same chassis number in Illinois!
Mueller and Ford demanded the return of the stolen car, but the man who had purchased it, Rick Workman, refused. Workman claims he had no idea the car was stolen. He purchased it in good faith from a Europen dealer.
So in February 2017, Mueller and Ford filed a replevin action against the company Workman used to purchase the car, TL90108, LLC.
It’s a case that fits the definition of replevin to a T. Mueller and Ford, the plaintiffs, are the rightful owners of a piece of personal property, the Talbot. They are suing the defendant, TL90108, LLC, for the return of the vehicle.
Unfortunately, this case is not as simple as the definition of replevin makes it sound. Wisconsin has a six year statute of limitations in replevin cases. A replevin action must be filed within six years from when the property was first “converted” aka stolen or wrongfully detained.
Mueller and Ford think the countdown clock should have started when they demanded Workman return the car and he refused. Workman says the clock had already run out by that time because it started the day the car was stolen.
It is unclear who is right, so the Wisconsin Supreme Court has agreed to hear this case and decide when the statute of limitations clock starts ticking in a replevin case. Our firm represents clients in replevin cases, so we are keeping a close eye on this case.