RALEIGH — Love and honor. Forsake all others. Marriage vows are easier said than done. Those who know say adultery is more common than most of us want to believe. That betrayal can come with a a big payoff. A 200-year-old North Carolina law allows betrayed spouses to sue the "other" person for damages and put a price tag on broken vows.
North Carolina is one of a handful of states which still has this 18th century law on the books. In essence, it allows a spouse to sue the person who stole his or her husband or wife. It's not used often. But twice in the past few weeks jilted spouses have been awarded big sums of money from North Carolina courts.
When people get married, they assume it will last forever. The 1987 movie "Fatal Attraction" reminds us that adultery happens everyday. Dorothy Hutelmyer chose not to be a victim. She sued her husband's lover and won one million dollars last month in an Alamance court. These cases are no surprise to private investigators who are often hired to follow cheating spouses.
Jim Hilton uses small video cameras, some so small they can shoot out of a pinpoint in a baseball, to document adultery. The tapes are then used as evidence in court.
Hilton looks for "any kind of holding hands, kissing in public, having lunch or dinner together at a secluded restaurant. Basically being alone together for a period of time will help prove the case."
But even with evidence, attorneys say to win this type of lawsuit you must prove several things, including that the marriage was in good standing before the affair and that the affair happened.
"That is clear liability of the defendant," family law attorney Mark Sullivan says. "They obviously did something wrong, and a deep pocket, a wealthy defendant who can pay damages if you get them from the jury."
Attorneys say the publicity surrounding the law will no doubt spurn more cases.
About ten years ago the North Carolina Supreme Court looked at the possibility of doing away with this law. But justices decided that it was up to the General Assembly to take a law off the books. So for now, betrayed spouses can continue to get financial revenge on the person they say wrecked their marriage.