For Richer, For Poorer: When Jilted Lovers Sue

Posted on March 9, 2011 by

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Romantic partnerships are, in many ways, like business partnerships: partners make risk assessments; they merge their assets; they invest time and money; and they balance costs and benefits. But should the courts treat romantic promises between partners as legally binding?

The Chicago Tribune reports:

Lauren Serafin’s wedding was set — dress purchased, Ritz-Carlton reserved, honeymoon to Bora Bora booked — when her fiancé called it off, according to a lawsuit filed Friday in Cook County Circuit Court.

Serafin, a Chicago attorney, alleges that her ex-fiancé, Robert Leighton, now owes her $62,814.71 in expenses for a wedding that never happened because of his “breach of promise,” according to the lawsuit.

USA Today has more (lurid) details:

[Serafin] says they planned to marry last August. But she says that while in Las Vegas for his bachelor party, [Leighton] met a woman, partied with her and had sex with her in his hotel room. She found this out via text messages on his phone, the suit says.

“Defendant, seemingly believing that ‘what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,’ denied that anything happened between himself and Danielle in Las Vegas,” the lawsuit says.

Serafin says that after first denying a hookup, her onetime bridegroom told her he would not marry her, the lawsuit says.

[…]

The lawsuit, posted on the website onpointnews.com, alleges breach of the promise to marry and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The lawsuit also says Serafin made nonrefundable deposits for the reception, honeymoon and more and “suffered humiliation” when she had to explain to everyone why she would not be walking down the aisle.

Above the Law’s David Lat notes that Lauren Serafin isn’t the first female lawyer in Chicago to sue her ex-fiancé:

This past December, Dominique Buttitta, a lawyer in the Chicago suburb of Hoffman Estates, sued her former fiancé, Vito Salerno, for breach of the promise to marry and for intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Buttitta sought a whopping $95,000 in expenses, including $12,000 for flowers, $10,000 for an orchestra, and over $5,000 for a “non-returnable Wedding dress, veil and hair accessory.” Vito Salerno — great name, right? — fired back with a lawsuit of his own, seeking the return of a $45,500 engagement ring (three carats — wow).

Serafin and Buttitta may have been encouraged in part by a 2008 Georgia case in which a woman named RoseMary Shell was awarded $150,000 after her fiancé, Wayne Gibbs, called off their wedding. In her suit against Gibbs, Shell argued that she’d quit a high-paying job and moved to Gainesville in October 2006 with the understanding that she and Gibbs would be wed that December. But in mid-November, Gibbs left a note in their shared bathroom asking if they could postpone the wedding. They later broke up.

Breach of promise lawsuits like Shell’s are allowed in less than half of the United States, and they’re difficult to pursue even in states which permit them. Courts are understandably reluctant to hear these cases; after all, the implications are rather daunting. Every human relationship is essentially an investment: Parents re-allocate resources to their children; friends trade gifts; live-in lovers merge assets—all with an understanding that the relationship is somehow deserving of the costs. If someone misrepresents his level of involvement in a relationship—or if he changes his mind about the nature of the relationship—is it fair that he might be opening himself up to an expensive lawsuit? Marriage, certainly, is a special class of relationship, in that its dissolution is a matter for the courts; but should the promise to marry be understood as legally binding by today’s legal system?

The Wikipedia page for “Breach of Promise” is brief and under-cited; but it actually has an interesting overview of the history of breach of promise suits:

Some of the original theory behind this tort was based on the idea that a woman would be more likely to give up her virginity to a man if she had his promise to marry her; if he subsequently refused marriage it was considered that this lack of virginity would make her future search for a suitable mate more difficult or even impossible.

However, in the 18th and 19th centuries, the main factors were compensation for the denial of the woman’s expectations of becoming “established” in a household (supported by her husband’s wealth), and/or possible damage to her reputation — since there were a number of ways that the reputation of a young never-married woman of the “genteel” classes could be damaged by a broken engagement, or an apparent period of intimacy which did not end in a publicly-announced engagement, even if few people seriously thought that she had lost her virginity. She might be viewed as having broken the code of maidenly modesty of the period by imprudently offering up her affections without having had a firm assurance of future marriage.

This explains why women used to file breach of promise suits against male ex-fiancés; but not why they still do. Since women are no longer necessarily dependent on men for financial stability or social status, the consequences to women of failed engagements are significantly less than they once were. If a man promises to marry a woman, and a woman chooses to invest money in the relationship on the faith of that promise, should she really be entitled to compensation for her poor investment?

Addendum: Here’s a screenshot of a 1921 New York Times article about a breach of promise suit. Note the would-be bride’s quote at the end. Hell hath no fury . . .



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