NC one of seven states that makes cheaters pay
Posted April 28, 2014
Updated April 29, 2014
Raleigh, N.C. — North Carolina is one of seven states in the country that allows a jilted spouse to sue someone for ruining their marriage. Husbands and wives file hundreds of lawsuits in the state each year against their ex-spouses' alleged paramours, with some judgments topping $30 million.
Nicole Russell, of Holly Springs, was ordered to pay her former friend $1.5 million in 2012 after having an affair with the woman’s husband. That amount has risen to more than $1.9 million with interest.
“I wasn’t looking. I don’t think he was looking. It just happened,” Russell said.
Russell says she was separated from her husband when she became friends with Dray Holland. She helped him and his wife, Marika Holland, through the birth of their newborn child and babysat for them. Then, the friendship changed.
“Dray was miserable,” she said. “Literally, one day that was it. He just turned around and hugged me, and that was it. We just knew, and we were just like, ‘What are we going to do?’ His words to me were, 'I'm stuck. I don't know what to do. She will destroy me.'”
Russell says she and Dray Holland went with their hearts, and she got pregnant. Marika Holland got mad.
“She went ballistic, absolutely ballistic. She gave him an ultimatum and said, ‘As long as you sign over property, time share, motorcycle, house, everything except your truck, I'll drop the lawsuit.’” Russell recalled. “I can understand completely she was hurt because I, as well, went through the same thing.”
Russell says she didn’t expect to be hit with an alienation of affection lawsuit and a $1.5 million judgment.
“So, that’s for the rest of my life. She owns me,” Russell said, adding that she is not responsible for breaking up the marriage. “It was already broken before I ever was involved.”
An attorney for Marika Holland released a statement to WRAL News, saying her client does "not wish to engage in a public airing of dirty laundry."
"This case has been through the judicial process," attorney Carolyn Lovejoy wrote. "Because there are children involved, Ms. Holland declines to comment on Ms. Russell's version of events."
The so-called broken-heart tort involves two components. One is alienation of affection, which accuses someone of breaking up a happy marriage. The other is criminal conversation, which involves sexual acts. The idea dates back hundreds of years to colonial North Carolina, when women were seen as property.
Russell is not alone when it comes to being on the losing end of these kinds of lawsuits.
In March 2011, a Wake County judge gave the largest alienation of affection award in state history to Carol Puryear, the ex-wife of Donald Puryear, who owns a trucking company in Raleigh. Betty Devin, who later married Donald Puryear, was accused of maliciously breaking up the marriage and was ordered to pay $30 million.
Victims rarely collect their judgments. In Russell's case, she has not paid Marika Holland any money, partially due to a bankruptcy filing. Devin, who was ordered to pay $30 million, has not paid anything, according to court records. The total was up to $42.7 million at last check.
Ditched spouses file about 200 lawsuits each year in North Carolina – 187 in 2012, 199 in 2011 and 205 in 2010. Many of the lawsuits are used as leverage in divorces and never make it in front of a judge. But WRAL News found some that do, especially those with the bigger verdicts, have something in common – the defendants are not always heard.
In Russell’s case, she says she was never notified, and her defense table sat empty at the November 2012 trial. She had no idea about the trial or judgment, she says, until a deputy came to her home in November 2012 and served her with the $1.5 million decision.
“I thought I was going to have a heart attack. I thought I was going to die,” she said. I thought I was going to literally … I sat on the floor.”
Russell tried to get the judgment overturned but lost the appeal. The judge placed some blame on her lawyer for not knowing about the hearing, saying the attorney did "not demonstrate diligence in monitoring the status of the case."
Jere Royall, director of community impact and counsel with the North Carolina Family Policy Council, says he believes the Old English common law has modern meaning.
“State policy needs to help protect marriage,” he said. “Alienation of affection really offers the only practical legal consequence for third parties who commit wrongful and malicious acts that result in loss of love and affection in a marriage.”
State Rep. Darren Jackson, D-Wake, helped craft a compromise in 2009 that placed stricter rules on alienation of affection suits, stipulating that no one can be sued for actions taken after a couple has permanently and physically separated. A three-year statute of limitations was also placed on the law.
Jackson says he'd prefer the law be abolished all together.
“I had seen the toll it takes on families. It's an antiquated law,” he said. “It just creates more hard feelings and makes it impossible for the parties – the husband and wife who have separated – to move forward in individual lives and still focus on the well-being of their children.”
For now, moving forward is difficult for Russell and her new husband Dray Holland. She's in bankruptcy and expects to lose the house they share.
“I can never open a credit card account. I can never buy a home. I can never buy a car. I'm basically am teenager all over again,” she said. “I understood her feelings, I understood. But, to go to such an extreme of destroying someone … It's almost a sick game. I will fight this until I have nothing left to fight with."