Cynthia Shackelford suspected something was up with her husband when his late nights at the office became more frequent and charges at fancy restaurants started appearing on his credit card bill. So, she hired a private investigator, who confirmed her heart wrenching suspicions: her husband of 33 years was having an affair with a woman named Anne Lundquist.
Shackelford and her husband, Allan, have separated and are now in the process of divorcing. But Shackelford wanted more than a divorce from her cheating husband – she wanted to send a message to would-be adulterers: “you don’t go after married men and break up families.”
So, under a centuries-old common law doctrine known as “alienation of affection,” Shackelford sued Lundquist for intentionally seducing her husband and ending her marriage. And, last week a jury ordered Lundquist to pay $9 million in compensatory and punitive damages. In an interview with ABC’s Good Morning America, Shackelford said she was shocked at the amount of the jury’s award. Lundquist (who did not appear at the trial and says she will appeal) called the verdict “hysterical.”
Like the common law action for breach of a promise to marry, the alienation of affection doctrine dates back to the era when marriage was viewed as a property transaction, with the wife herself considered the property of the husband. Thus, if another man swooped in and “stole” the wife by seduction, the aggrieved husband had a right to compensation. In modern times, states that still recognize the doctrine allow either spouse to sue.
The vast majority of U.S. states have abolished the doctrine – including Washington State, which did away with it by way of a 1980 Supreme Court decision in the case of Wyman v. Wallace. In that opinion, the court endorsed the appellate court’s decision to bar a man from suing the man who had an affair with his wife.
In the Wyman opinion, the Supreme Court agreed with the Court of Appeals’ five stated reasons for eliminating the doctrine, which were that:
(1) The underlying assumption of preserving marital harmony is erroneous; (2) The judicial process is not sufficiently capable of policing the often vicious out-of-court settlements; (3) The opportunity for blackmail is great since the mere bringing of an action could ruin a defendant’s reputation; (4) There are no helpful standards for assessing damages; and (5) The successful plaintiff succeeds in compelling what appears to be a forced sale of the spouse’s affections.
In short, Washington courts now see such an action as promoting an outdated and unrealistic view of marriage, while also being a potential weapon for abuse of the legal process.
Only seven states continue to recognize the alienation of affection doctrine: in addition to North Carolina, Hawaii, Illinois, Mississippi, New Mexico, South Dakota, Utah all permit a wronged spouse to sue their personal home-wrecker.
Source: ABC News.