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North Carolina law still recognizes actions for the claims of Alienation of Affection and Criminal Conversation. There are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to this area of law, and first and foremost it should be noted that just because your spouse has cheated on you, it does not necessarily mean that you have a successful claim for Alienation of Affection and/or Criminal Conversation.
Understanding Alienation of Affection and/or Criminal Conversation under North Carolina law
To be clear, a lawsuit for Alienation of Affection and/or Criminal Conversation in NC (the two claims are often filed together), involves the Plaintiff (you, or the spouse that has been cheated on) suing the Defendant (your spouse’s lover, or your lover if you are the one who cheated).
The cheating spouse is not a party in this type of action; instead, it is a “battle” between the spouse who has been wronged versus the cheating spouse’s “paramour” (so to speak).
A claim for Alienation of Affection requires the Plaintiff to prove the following 3 elements:
- there was a marriage with love and affection existing between the husband and wife
- that love and affection were alienated
- the malicious acts of the Defendant produced the loss of that love and affection
A claim for Criminal Conversation requires the Plaintiff to prove the following 2 elements:
- actual marriage between the Plaintiff and his or her spouse
- sexual intercourse between Defendant and the Plaintiff’s spouse during that marriage
For Purposes of an Alienation of Affection Claim
The Plaintiff does not have to prove that his or her marriage was one of previously “untroubled bliss” or that his or her spouse had no affection for anyone else, instead the Plaintiff has to prove that his or her spouse had some genuine love and affection for the Plaintiff, and that love and affection was lost as a result of the Defendant’s wrongdoings.
Also, it is not necessary that the Defendant’s acts are the sole cause of the alienation, as long as they were the “controlling or effective cause.”
What Constitutes "Controlling or Effective Cause?"
For the Defendant to be a “controlling or effective cause” of the alienation, it is not required that the Defendant “lured” the Plaintiff’s spouse into a relationship outside of his or her marriage, or even that the Defendant initiated the relationship.
The defendant need only be a willing participant who made occasions for the relationship to develop.
Malice (for the “malicious acts” element) can be demonstrated by showing that the Defendant knew the Plaintiff’s spouse was married and acted intentionally in a way that was likely to affect the marriage.
The Cost of Damages
A major component of an Alienation of Affection and/or Criminal Conversation Claim is determining the “damages” that the Plaintiff may be entitled to receive as a result of the Defendant’s actions.
In other words, how much money is the Plaintiff entitled to receive from the Defendant? The jury will determine this number based on the evidence presented at trial.
There are two types of damages in these cases:
- compensatory damages and
- punitive damages.
“Compensatory” damages are meant to “compensate” the Plaintiff while “punitive” damages are meant to “punish” the Defendant.
In an Alienation of Affection claim, compensatory damages are measured by the present value in money of the support, consortium (defined as “conjugal fellowship of husband and wife, and the right of each to the company, cooperation, affection, and aid of the other in every conjugal relation”), and other legally protected marital interests lost by the Plaintiff due to the Defendant’s actions. The jury may also consider injury to the Plaintiff’s health, feelings, or reputation.
In a Criminal Conversation claim, compensatory damages cannot be measured precisely due to the unique nature of the cause of action, but the jury may consider the loss of consortium, mental anguish, humiliation, injury to health, and loss of support the Plaintiff has suffered as a result of the Defendant’s actions.
Punitive damages are intended to punish a Defendant for acts that are egregiously wrongful and to discourage the Defendant and others in the community from committing similar wrongful acts.
It is important to note that under North Carolina law, punitive damages may not exceed three times the amount of compensatory damages, or $250,000.00, whichever is greater.
For Alienation of Affection claims, the Plaintiff has to have evidence of circumstances of aggravation (willful, wanton, aggravated, or malicious conduct) beyond the proof of the malice necessary to satisfy the basic elements of the claim (that alone would entitle the Plaintiff to compensatory damages).
In other words, the circumstances of the Defendant’s actions must have gone above and beyond the threshold of compensatory damages to the extent that the Defendant should be “punished” for his or her behavior by the jury awarding the Plaintiff punitive damages.
Some examples of circumstances that justify punitive damages in Alienation of Affections cases include:
- sexual relations between Defendant and Plaintiff’s spouse
- Defendant’s laughter about the situation
- repeated sexual act in the marital home and
- Defendant’s knowledge that the relationship would harm the Plaintiff’s children
In a Criminal Conversation Claim
The claim itself does not require malice like in Alienation of Affection; so any evidence of malice on the Defendant’s part is enough to sustain an award of punitive damages.
Also, the sexual misconduct that is necessary to establish a claim of Criminal Conversation may also sustain an award of punitive damages. When a Plaintiff has shown sufficient evidence of Criminal Conversation to the jury, the jury may also consider punitive damages.
Do You Have a Cheating Spouse? Understand Your Legal Rights
Finding out that your spouse has cheated is a terrible thing to happen to anyone, and you are surely experiencing a lot of pain and sadness as a result of this newfound knowledge. If you are considering whether you should pursue a claim of Alienation of Affection and/or Criminal Conversation, keep in mind that a great deal of legal analysis and trial strategy goes into these types of claims, and the potential success of such claims is very circumstantial.
There are many factors to consider when evaluating whether you have a solid case, and you should consult with experienced Raleigh Divorce Attorneys about your options. Call The Doyle Law Group, P.A. today at (919) 301-8843 to set up an appointment with one of our knowledgeable attorneys.