From the Rosen Law Firm
An outsider’s interference with marriage can cost the outsider big bucks in North Carolina
Fairly high-dollar awards in such cases have existed here for a number of years, a fact not generally known. As long ago as 1926, for instance, a jury in MaconCounty rendered a verdict in the amount of $12,000 against the lover of plaintiff’s wife. A 1931 jury in Forsyth County held against plaintiff wife’s father-in-law for $38,000. A Rowan County jury awarded $30,000 against a husband’s girlfriend in 1969. In 1982, our Court of Appeals affirmed a jury verdict in the amount of $25,000 in compensatory damages and another $25,000 in punitive damages.
Moving into the 1990’s, North Carolina juries were even more generous. A 1990 Forsyth County jury award of $300,000 in punitive damages for alienation was sustained on appeal, even though the court struck the compensatory award for $200,000. In 1997 alone, a jury handed down $1.2 million against a female paramour in Forsyth County and awarding another jilted wife $1 million in Alamance County and a deceived husband $243,000 in Wake County. In late 1999, a judge in Durham County valued compensatory damages in a case brought by a husband against his wife’s lover at less than $3,000 in compensatory damages but the judge still awarded $40,000 in punitive damages on the criminal conversation claim.
Even in this decade, the trend of generosity has continued. In August of 2000, a Burke County judge awarded a devastated wife $86,250 for alienation of affection and $15,000 for criminal conversation, totaling $101,250. In May of 2001, in Richmond County, the jury answered the issues of alienation of affection and criminal conversation in favor of the scorned husband and awarded him compensatory damages of $50,000 plus punitive damages of $50,000. Another distraught husband, in Mecklenburg County, received an award of $1.4 million in May, 2001 comprised of $910,000 in compensatory damages and $500,000 in punitive damages.The jury found the doctor who had had an affair with this man’s wife liable for both alienation of affection and criminal conversation. After an appeal the original award of compensatory damages was reversed, the punitive damages award, however, was upheld. In 2007, a Cook County judge ordered a man to pay $4802 to a husband who was grieving the loss of his wife after an affair.
Since our Supreme Court refused to abolish these causes of action in 1984 and since our legislature has shown no strong interest in abolishing these causes of action, sizeable damage awards remain a real possibility in North Carolina. More than 200 alienation actions are filed in an average year.
Conduct after date of separation
The date of separation is an important date in alienation of affection and criminal conversation cases. Our courts have decided that conduct that occurs before the date of separation is relevant to these types of actions. This is because a claim of alienation of affection must prove that, among other things, the defendant’s malicious conduct contributed to or caused the loss of affection in the marriage. The parties to the marriage must still be together in order to prove this claim. It is important to note, however, that conduct which occurs after the date of separation may also be considered by a judge, if that conduct corroborates the conduct that occurred before the date of separation. In criminal conversation actions, by contrast, post-separation conduct is even more important. Conduct which occurs after the date of separation can be considered by a court to not only corroborate behavior that occurred before the date of separation, but is enough on its own to maintain an action for criminal conversation.
North Carolina is in the minority
The existence of continuing cases of this sort in North Carolina appears to surprise lawyers and residents in many other states because we are now in a very small minority of jurisdictions — including Hawaii, Illinois, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New Mexico, South Dakota and Utah — which still recognize both alienation of affection and criminal conversation. Forty three states and the District of Columbia have abolished the cause of action for alienation of affection. The states vary widely in the way they deal with this issue: in some states, only one of the two causes of action continues to exist, and thus proof of the claim and/or damages have been significantly curtailed in recent years. None of these reforms has altered the stance favoring such claims in this State.
Criminal conversation is the name for a civil lawsuit sounding in tort (a kind of injury to the person) based on sexual intercourse between the defendant and the plaintiff’s spouse. Criminal conversation is something like a “strict liability tort” because the only things the plaintiff has to prove are (1) an act of intercourse and (2) the existence of a valid marriage between the plaintiff and the adulterous spouse, and (3) the bringing of the lawsuit within the applicable statute of limitations. For all practical purposes, there are no obvious defenses to a timely claim for criminal conversation, provided the plaintiff can prove a valid marriage and intercourse between the defendant and plaintiff’s spouse. It is not a defense that: the defendant did not know the other person was married, that the person consented to the sex, that the plaintiff was separated from his or her spouse, that the other person actually seduced the defendant, that the marriage was an unhappy one, that the defendant’s sex with the spouse did not otherwise impact on the plaintiff’s marriage, that plaintiff had mistreated the spouse, or that the plaintiff had also been unfaithful. It might be a defense that the plaintiff “consented” to the illicit intercourse; but defendant would have to show that this approval or encouragement had pre-dated the extramarital conduct.
Alienation of Affection
An action for alienation of affection, on the other hand, does not require proof of extramarital sex. Despite this difference, an alienation claim tends to be more difficult to establish because it is comprised of more elements and there are some additional defenses. To succeed on an alienation claim, the plaintiff has to show that (1) the marriage entailed love between the spouses in some degree; (2) the spousal love was alienated and destroyed; and (3) defendant’s malicious conduct contributed to or caused the loss of affection. It is not necessary to show that the defendant set out to destroy the marital relationship, but only that he or she intentionally engaged in acts which would foreseeably impact on the marriage. Thus, defendant has a defense against an alienation claim — but not to a claim for criminal conversation — where it can be shown that defendant did not know that the object of his or her affections was in fact married. As with a criminal conversation action, it is not a defense that the non-innocent spouse consented to defendant’s conduct. But it might be a defense that the defendant was not the active and aggressive seducer. If defendant’s conduct was somehow inadvertent, the plaintiff would be unable to show intentional or malicious action. But prior marital problems do not establish a defense unless such unhappiness had reached a level of negating love between the spouses.
Criticism of these laws
Critics of such laws call them obsolete methods for legislating morality (despite the fact that most criminal laws could be said to legislate morality). Critics also say the laws do not fulfill their purpose of protecting marital relationships, inequitably punish only one of two guilty parties, and serve as an excuse for blackmail or forced settlements. The critics add that such suits can also be misused by embittered spouses seeking vengeance against a third party interferer and that injured spouses cannot possibly be compensated for a lost marriage. On the other hand, defenders point to the virtual non-existence of criminal prosecutions for adultery in current American culture, a need to uphold the sanctity of the marriage vows through some kind of formal legal sanction for violation of marital promises, and the potential deterrence of rampant extramarital affairs by means of the threat of monetary damage suits. Defenders also point out that adultery has a very long history of illegality; and that it is therefore appropriate for the civil laws of criminal conversation and alienation of affections to perpetuate Western culture’s longstanding disapproval, by law and by custom, of extramarital affairs.
Whether one thinks it is a good or a bad situation for North Carolina to continue to recognize such claims by spouses claiming injury to their marriages may largely depend, then, on one’s views of the need in the 1990s for protection of the marital relationship through civil litigation against the non-spouse wrongdoer and for monetary remedies for the alleged harms caused to that relationship. Indeed, some commentators have mentioned that high jury verdicts and the renewed popular interest in lawsuits for alienation of affections and criminal conversation may signal a growing societal disaffection with overly permissive sexual standards and a desire for stricter enforcement of family values. Pro-family writers believe it important that deceived spouses have litigation-oriented opportunities for vindication and that society retain this acknowledgment, however marginalized at present, of the supremacy of the institution of marriage against unwarranted intrusion. Ultimately, of course, these are all subjective and philosophical viewpoints likely to vary considerably from person to person.