At common law there is a cause of action known as alienation of affections. The typical scenario for a lawsuit of this type involves a plaintiff whose spouse has left him or her for another person.
The plaintiff typically sues the paramour (or lover), alleging interference in an otherwise happy marriage. However, the defendant need not necessarily be a paramour, but could be a therapist, family member, clergy member or some other third party who intentionally interferes with the marital relationship.
The theory is that the defendant, by alienating, or taking away the spouse’s affections, has thereby deprived the plaintiff of the love, comfort, companionship and consortium of his or her spouse.
These types of cases are also known as heartbalm lawsuits.
Most states have abolished this cause of action by statute. But Utah is one of a handful of states (seven according to Wikipedia) that still retains it.
The 1950’s case of Wilson v Oldroyd, 1 Utah 2d 362 (1954), 267 P.2d 759 sets forth the elements needed to prove a heartbalm case. The plaintiff must show:
1) The fact of the marriage,
2) That the defendant willfully and intentionally,
3) Alienated the spouse’s affections,
4) Resulting in the loss of the comfort, society and consortium of the spouse, and
5) (To justify punitive damages), a charge of malice.
See also Hodges v. Howell, 2000 UT App 171.
In the Wilson case the plaintiff husband was awarded compensatory damages of $50,000 against defendant Oldroyd, who was a relatively wealthy doctor and was well-known in the small community in which the parties lived. The plaintiff’s ex-wife testified against him in favor of Dr. Oldroyd. However, despite this, the jury believed the plaintiff and, in addition to the compensatory damages, awarded him $25,000 in punitive damages. On appeal, the court upheld the compensatory damages award, but reduced the punitive damages to $5,000.
In the Hodges case, the defendant sought dismissal of the lawsuit by alleging that the statute of limitations had passed. The defendant argued that alienation of affections was similar in nature to a seduction lawsuit, for which there was a one-year statute of limitations. The court distinguished alienation of affections from seduction, however, and ruled that the catch-all four year statute of limitations applied. The court also held that there was a genuine issue of material fact, and that therefore, summary judgment was not appropriate.
The elements of an alienation of affections case may be difficult to prove. As in the Wilson case, the former spouse might testify in favor of his or her paramour against the deserted spouse. Moreover, proving that the defendant behaved willfully and intentionally may also be difficult to prove.
Nevertheless, the cause of action survives in Utah.
This material should not be construed as legal advice for any particular fact situation, but is intended for general informational purposes only. For advice specific to any individual situation, an experienced attorney should be contacted.