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$8.8 million ‘alienation of affection’ penalty in North Carolina

“I can live without money, but I cannot live without love.”

This sentiment – voiced by Judy Garland, who married five times and boasted a net worth of $20 million at the time of her death – might explain why Keith King does not count himself a victor, even after a judge in North Carolina ordered another man to pay him $8.8 million for wrecking his marriage.

In King’s words, spoken to Inside Edition, “There isn’t a dollar amount that you can put on it for what I think my family’s worth.”

But because of precepts borrowed from English common law, there actually is a dollar amount – $2.2 million in compensatory damages and $6.6 million in punitive damages, according to a decision last week by a Superior Court judge in Durham, North Carolina. The judge found that an affair lasting more than a year harmed King through criminal conversation – meaning adultery – and alienation of affection – meaning responsibility for marital fracture, typically through enticement.

The legal argument is scarcely more intricate than this: He had a happy marriage, until someone came along and lured away his wife.

Only a handful of states still recognize this situation as a cause of legal action, holding on to ideas about liability and wrongdoing that took hold in 17th-century England and reflected the “common-law assumption that the married woman was her husband’s chattel,” according to an account of North Carolina family law written by Suzanne Reynolds of Wake Forest University Law School. In modern times, the basis for the claim shifted from a property interest to the benefits of “love, society, companionship, and comfort arising out of the marital relationship,” according to law professors Charles E. Daye and Mark W. Morris.

In a 1992 judgment casting aside these principles, the Kentucky Supreme Court affirmed, “affection between spouses cannot be owned.”

As of 2016, alienation of affection still exists as a basis for civil complaints in six states, ranging from Hawaii to South Dakota.

And then there is North Carolina, where 200 alienation of affection claims are filed every year, a Raleigh law firm estimates. In the Tar Heel State, destroying a marriage can be a costly thing to do. In 2011, a judge ordered an alleged mistress to pay a jilted wife $30 million for denying her the affection of her husband. The year before, a similar complaint entitled a woman to $9 million, a jury found.

The defendant named in an alienation of affection claim does not need to be a lover of the plaintiff’s spouse. In 2010, Andrew Young – a longtime aide to John Edwards, the former North Carolina senator and Democratic vice-presidential nominee – said the politician’s estranged wife, Elizabeth Edwards, had threatened to sue him on these grounds.

Nearly $9 million is the financial penalty that Judge Orlando Hudson last week deemed appropriate for actions that, in the modern era, mostly give rise to divorce and a lifelong grudge. Keith King was not satisfied with these remedies.

King is the owner of BMX Stunt Shows, a company that also employed his wife, Danielle. The pair married in 2010 and have a 5-year-old daughter, the Herald-Sun reported, citing court documents and testimony.

But Danielle, in testimony in Superior Court, said she was unhappy from the first year of their union. When she met a marketing tour manager, Francisco Huizar III of San Antonio, at a BMX show in New York in August 2015, she decided to pursue him, according to the Herald-Sun. Keith discovered the affair when an unknown number appeared on his phone bill. He told Huizar to step back, but he persisted, renting an apartment near the family’s home, according to the plaintiff’s attorney, as well as intruding on a spa weekend at the beach and a family vacation.

Danielle rented an apartment in early 2017 and put Huizar’s name on the lease, the Durham-based paper reported. When she told her husband she was having electrical issues at her new place, Keith appeared and found Huizar with his wife. A video recording, which Keith’s attorney claims was part of a plot to support domestic violence allegations, shows the two men struggling. “She’s my wife, man,” pleads Keith, held in a loose chokehold by Huizar. “You’re picking him over me?” he calls to his estranged wife.

The husband’s attorney, Joanne Foil, maintained that the pair enjoyed a happy marriage until Huizar came along, while the defendant’s attorney, Cheri Patrick, said the union “needed one more blow before it was over,” the Herald-Sun reported.

Foil said the affair, as well as an assault by Huizar, cost the BMX company severely, sending revenue plummeting from $400,000 in 2015 to $125,000 in 2017 while forcing her client to dole out more funds to cover household responsibilities, such as child care.

“What I’ve endured is, I’ve compared it to like a nuclear bomb going on around my surroundings,” Keith King said in an interview with an ABC affiliate in Charlotte.

Alienation of affection and criminal conversation are common law torts widely viewed as outdated. “Conversation” is an old word for sexual intercourse, obsolete but for this usage.

Experts have warned about exorbitant rewards as well as to the possibility of blackmail. They also say this cause of action has failed to prevent adultery or promote marriage. Still, legislative attempts to scrap the principles have failed, and a 1984 attempt by the North Carolina Court of Appeals to abandon alienation of affection and criminal conversation was quashed by the state Supreme Court.

A 2009 article in the North Carolina Law Review argues that criminal conversation, which was abolished in England in 1857, “is used in a way that not only destroys peoples’ lives, but also respect for the North Carolina legal system.”