Left at the Altar? You May Be Entitled to Damages for Your Injuries.

A jilted groom in Malaysia is suing the woman he was to marry for calling off their engagement just six hours before the wedding.  The groom, 31 year old Masran Abdul Rahman, says that he and his family were humiliated and distressed by his betrothed’s decision to cancel the nuptials, and were forced to call off a reception to which over 1000 guests had been invited.  The proper compensation for said humiliation, according to Rahman? $360,000.00.

This “odd news” item got us wondering – could a jilted fiance in this state bring such a law suit?  Interestingly, the answer – to some extent – appears to be yes.

In a 1977  “breach of promise to marry” case, the Washington Supreme Court declined to abolish a cause of action for damages allegedly caused by a broken engagement. In that case, L.L. Stanard, a single mother of two, was engaged to marry Raymond Bolin. During their relationship and engagement, Raymond assured L.L. “that he was worth in excess of $ 2 million, was planning to retire in 2 years, and that the two of them would then travel.  [Raymond] also promised [L.L.] that she would never have to work again and that he would see to the support of her two teen-age boys. He also promised to see that [L.L.'s] mother would never be in need.”

Wedding plans were made; dresses were purchased, a church and reception hall were reserved. L.L. sold her house because she and Raymond had signed a purchase agreement for another residence.  However, about one month before the wedding was to occur, Raymond called off the engagement. L.L. sued Raymond for breaching his promise to marry her. She asked for compensation for “pain, impairment to health, humiliation, and embarrassment” as well as for “loss of expected financial security” – namely, the wealth and status that she expected to attain by becoming Raymond’s wife.

The doctrine of “breach of promise to marry” originated in 17th century English common law.  At that time, marriage was essentially a property transaction between two families.  The Supreme Court noted that the doctrine has been subject to much criticism by legal scholars who contend that the doctrine is inappropriate in modern times where “most persons marry for reasons of mutual love and affection.”  However, the court declined to wholly abolish the doctrine, and said:

When two persons agree to marry, they should realize that certain actions will be taken during the engagement period in reliance on the mutual promises to marry. Rings will be purchased, wedding dresses and other formal attire will be ordered or reserved, and honeymoon plans with their attendant expenses will be made. Wedding plans, such as the rental of a church, the engagement of a minister, the printing of wedding invitations, and so on, will commence. It is also likely that the parties will make plans for their future residence, such as purchasing a house, buying furniture, and the like. Further, at the time the parties decide to marry, they should realize that their plans and visions of future happiness will be communicated to friends and relatives and that wedding gifts soon will be arriving. When the plans to marry are abruptly ended, it is certainly foreseeable that the party who was unaware that the future marriage would not take place will have expended some sums of money and will suffer some forms of mental anguish, loss to reputation, and injury to health. We do not feel these injuries should go unanswered merely because the breach-of-promise-to-marry action may be subject to abuses; rather, an attempt should be made to eradicate the abuses from the action.

Stanard v. Bolin, 88 Wn.2d 614 at 619.

The court, however, acknowledged that “marriages today generally are not considered property transactions, but are… ‘the result of that complex experience called being in love.’”  Thus, the court ruled that a jilted fiance may no longer pursue damages for loss of expected financial and social position.

Since the Supreme Court issued its opinion in Stanard, it appears that only one other such case has reached the appellate courts.  That case, a 2006 appeal of a trial court’s dismissal of a man’s breach of promise to marry action, was unpublished (meaning that the case cannot be cited as legal precedent), and did not discuss the doctrine in any detail.  The lack of modern case law leads us to believe that, while it is possible to sue an ex-fiance, most people choose to mend their broken hearts without going to court.

Malaysian “runaway bride” story via The Guardian.

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