About a year ago, I blogged about the dying tort of alienation of affections. I say “dying” because all but seven states have abolished the cause of action. However, in at least one of those states, approximately 200 cuckolded spouses each year sue their spouse’s paramour. Just last week, a North Carolina jury awarded a spurned wife $9 million ($5 million in compensatory and $4 million in punitive damages) against the woman she claims wrecked her marriage of 33 years. Although the defendant paramour does not have $9 million, the wife does not regret suing her husband’s lover. She admits that the point of the lawsuit, at least in part, was to send a message. This brings me back to the concerns I raised over a year ago. These suits are not about compensation for one’s injuries or deterring adultery, but rather seek to humiliate the paramour and assert one’s own moral superiority. In fact, these suits can be harmful to the plaintiff herself. In this case, the wife owes tens of thousands of dollars in legal bills and she will probably never receive much (if any) of the $9 million awarded to her. But, as she conceded, this case is about something much greater than money; she wanted people about to enter into a relationship with a married person “to understand, before they do it, how much it hurts.”
The defendant paramour plans to appeal. This might be an opportunity for North Carolina to follow the majority of states that have abolished the cause of action for alienation of affections on the ground that a spouse’s affections cannot be stolen and that one person is never the sole cause of marital breakdown. However, the court might do the opposite and use this opportunity to remind us that “[w]hen a third person is at fault for the breakdown of a marriage, the law ought to provide a remedy.” Norton v. Macfarlane (Utah 1991). Stay tuned.