$750,000 for Alienation and Criminal Conversation
You may have seen this headline in the news lately: “NC man wins $750,000 judgment against man for stealing his wife” and no, it’s not an article from The Onion or another satire paper. It’s real and from an actual case in Pitt County, North Carolina!
North Carolina is one of only a few states (Hawaii, Mississippi, New Mexico, South Dakota, and Utah are the others) that still has an alienation of affection statute. Under this statute, a spouse can sue a third party for acts that alienated the suing party from his or her spouse. This is mostly used in cases where one spouse had an extramarital affair.
Another cause of action that tends to go along with alienation of affection is that of criminal conversation (a law abolished in England in 1857). Criminal conversation is a tort law, not a criminal one, despite the misleading name. Criminal conversation usually occurs when one spouse has sexual contact with a third person outside of the marriage. To win a criminal conversation suit, a plaintiff must prove: (1) an actual marriage existed between the plaintiff and their spouse; and (2) the third party engaged in sexual contact with the plaintiff’s spouse during the marriage.
Alienation of affection verdicts as large as this one are rare, but they do happen. In July 2018, a Durham County Superior Court judge awarded a plaintiff $2.2 million in compensatory damages and $6.6 million in punitive damages after finding that an affair lasting for over a year harmed the plaintiff through criminal conversation and alienation of affection. In 2011, a Wake County Superior Court judge awarded a woman $30 million in an alienation of affection case.
Perhaps the reason you might be at least somewhat familiar with the term “alienation of affection” is because of the late Elizabeth Edwards, former wife of 2008 presidential hopeful and former United States Senator for North Carolina, John Edwards, and the political scandal involving Mr. Edwards allegedly fathering a daughter while in adulterous relationship with a videographer during his presidential campaign. Ms. Edwards told reporters she may consider filing an alienation of affection against Mr. Edwards’ political aide, as it was her belief that his aide not only aided in his political campaign, but also aided in facilitating an adulterous affair. Ultimately, the suit was never filed, and Mr. and Ms. Edwards did separate before Ms. Edwards passed away in 2010.
There have been attempts over the years to do away with these laws. In 1984, the North Carolina Court of Appeals (the second highest court in the state) attempted to abandon these laws, but the North Carolina Supreme Court (the highest court in the land) did not agree. As such, these causes of action seemingly archaic in the minds of some, still remain on the books today in North Carolina.