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Detention of Goods

Detention is the adverse withholding of the goods of another. The remedy in English law is an action of detinue. It lies for the specific recovery of chattels, wrongfully detained from the person entitled to the possession of them, and also for the damages occasioned by the wrongful detainer. The defendant had, or was assumed to have, come lawfully into possession, as by delivery or finding; but as the gist of the action is the wrongful detention of goods it is immaterial whether the goods were obtained by defendant by lawful means, as by a bailment or finding, or by a wrongful act as a trespass or conversion.

The injury complained of is not the taking, nor the misuse and appropriation of the goods, but only the detention. The plaintiff must, as in conversion, have a special and general property, and a right to the immediate possession.1) As the object is to recover the specific goods they must be ascertained and capable of identification, and the nature of the things must continue without alteration; the action will not lie for a sum of money or a quantity of grain, unless they be specifically distinguished from other property of the same kind, as by being placed in a bag or sack.

Detinue, considered as a tort, does not substantially differ from conversion by detention.

Where a railway company detains cattle under a mistaken claim for carriage, they will be liable for such detention and consequent harm to the cattle, though carried under a condition against liability for loss, detention, or injury in the carriage of them, as such refusal was unconnected with their transport.2)

Action of detinue

The detention necessary to support an action is an adverse or wrongful detention by the party sued, or by his servants or agents. The plaintiff must show he was entitled to delivery of the goods claimed. There should be evidence of a request on the part of the plaintiff to have the goods delivered to him, and of a refusal to deliver on the part of the defendant. A defendant, having goods in his possession, is not by reason thereof bound to seek out the plaintiff and send them to him. The plaintiff must come for them.3) It is no answer to say, when a demand is made for the redelivery of a chattel that the defendant is unable to comply with the demand by reason of his own negligence or breach of duty. It is clearly no answer to say that he has lost the chattel, and is consequently unable to redeliver it to the plaintiff.4), or that the defendant abandoned possession of the goods before action by delivering them over to some third person.


A lien on the goods by the defendant is a good answer.


Substantial damages will be given for the detention of an article which has fallen in value between the time it was taken and the time it was returned. The value of the goods may be assessed at the price they bore in the market at the time of demand by the plaintiff, or at the time of trial, whichever is the highest.5) The remarks made in measuring damages in actions for trespass to goods apply equally here. The proper measure of damages for wrongful detention of property is the difference between the value of the property when seized and its value when restored.6)

Indian case: Where plaintiff sued to recover damages for the detention of his coffee estate and certain movable property by the defendant, and for the loss sustained, partly by the destruction of crop and partly by neglect of proper cultivation, it was held that the defendant was liable for the value of the profits of the estate, and of any property removed from the estate, in compensation for any injury caused to the estate.7)

Gordon v. G.W. Ry.
Clements v. Flight
Reeve v. Palmer
Archer v. Williams
Nandeeram v. Inderchand
Mclvor v. Stainbank

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