Some Want To Get Rid Of 'Alienation Of Affection' Lawsuits
Posted February 2, 2005
RALEIGH, N.C. — Alienation of affection is actually a carryover from British common law. It dates back to when men bascially owned their wives like a piece of property. Since 1989, lawyers in North Carolina have been trying to get what they call an outdated law off the books, but people who file these lawsuits say they deserve a voice.
Most people getting married hope it is forever, but in today's world, forever is not always a reality. Christine Gray was married seven years when she said she found out her husband was having an affair.
"There was three people in my marriage and I didn't know it," she said. "This lady inserted herself into my life. She knew he was married. They do work together."
Gray filed a lawsuit against the other woman under a rarely used state statute called "alienation of affection." Raleigh family lawyer Lee Rosen represented dozens of people in such lawsuits.
"It's messy. It's horrible. It's like a nuclear weapon has hit the family," he said.
Rosen said he discourages clients from filing them especially when divorcing couples want to share child custody.
"These are couples who are going to be couples at one level or another for the rest of their lives. An alienation case destroys the possibility of future cooperation," he said.
Attorney Lynn Burleson, a volunteer lobbyist for the North Carolina Bar Association, said he wants the law abolished.
"Nobody's for adultery, but these laws are just bad laws," he said. "In English common law, it was only the husband who could bring the lawsuit against the wife's paramour. It was just like stealing his cow."
Gray said for her, it is not about money or revenge, but principle.
"My children and I are victims. This is no different than somebody shooting us, robbing us, burning our house down. You don't have the right to mistreat folks," she said.
Most of the time, lawyers said it costs as much or more to try these kind of cases than the injured party stands to win. They can also take months, even years, to resolve. In the last legislative session, House lawmakers agreed to do away with the law, but there was not enough support for the measure in the Senate. The Bar Association will push for it again during this session.
Jury awards in the "alienation of affection" cases started small in North Carolina, but they have grown by leaps and bounds. As far back as 1926, $12,000 was awarded to a husband whose wife had an affair. By 1990, awards reached $500,000 in one Forsyth County case. Part of the award was dismissed by the appeals court. Eight years ago, a jilted wife in Forsyth County was given $1.2 million.