Citation. Hutelmyer v. Cox, 133 N.C. App. 364, 514 S.E.2d 554, 1999)
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Brief Fact Summary.
Plaintiff brought suit against Defendant for alienating the affections of her husband and criminal conversation after Defendant actively participated in an extramarital affair with Plaintiff’s husband. Punitive and compensatory damages were awarded at trial for Plaintiff.
Synopsis of Rule of Law.
Alienation of affections and criminal conversation may be established when defendant’s wrongful actions are the effective cause of alienation between spouses.
Plaintiff was happily married to Mr. Hutelmyer with three children. Mr. Hutelmyer’s secretary, Defendant Cox, divorced and she and Mr. Hutelmyer began to have an extramarital affair. They openly flirted with one another, took business trips together, and Mr. Hutelmyer began spending the night at Defendant’s house. This resulted in strained relationships at Mr. Hutelmyer’s home and an eventual end to all sexual relationships with his wife. Plaintiff and her husband separated, and Plaintiff brought an action against Defendant for alienating the affections of her husband and for criminal conversation. At trial Plaintiff was awarded both punitive and compensatory damages.
Did the trial court err by:
not finding the evidence insufficient as a matter of law to show that she acted maliciously in alienating the affections of Plaintiff’s husband;
finding sufficient evidence to support the award of punitive damages;
not granting a new trial on the issue of compensatory and punitive damages;
refusing to abolish the torts of alienation of affections and criminal conversation.
The trial court did not err by permitting the jury to award damages for alienation of affections and criminal conversation.
To support a claim of alienation of affections, the plaintiff must present evidence to show that: (1) plaintiff and spouse were happily married and a genuine love and affection existed between them; (2) the love and affection was alienated and destroyed; and (3) the wrongful and malicious acts of defendant produced the alienation of affections. All that is necessary to establish the tort is that the wrongful acts of defendant were the effective cause of the alienation, even if other causes may have contributed. The trial court properly submitted Plaintiff’s claim to the jury because the evidence demonstrated that the love and affection that existed between Plaintiff and her husband was alienated and destroyed by Defendant’s conduct.
Punitive damages are recoverable where defendant’s conduct was willful, aggravated, malicious, or of a wanton character. Defendant publicly displayed her intimate relationship with Plaintiff’s husband and welcomed him into her home at all hours. This evidence demonstrated the necessary additional circumstances of aggravation necessary for punitive damages.
Compensatory and punitive damages for alienation of affections and criminal conversion are determined by loss of income, life insurance, pension benefits, loss of consortium, mental anguish, humiliation, and injury to health. Because the evidence demonstrated these losses the amount of damages were not excessive as a matter of law.
It is not the prerogative of the appellate court to overrule or ignore the precedent of the state supreme court. Therefore, the court is powerless to abolish the torts of alienation of affections or criminal conversation.
The Defendant would not have been liable if she were simply the object of affections that alienated Plaintiff from her husband, but Defendant’s active participation, initiative, or encouragement can create liability.