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Heart Balm Torts & Alienation of Affection

The “Heart Balm Torts” are two distinct causes of action: Alienation of Affections and Criminal Conversation. So-called “Heart Balm Torts” are unique causes of action which allow an aggrieved spouse to sue a third party, also known as a paramour, for interfering in his or her marital relationship. North Carolina is one of the few remaining states which provides for these actions under state law.

Alienation of Affections is defined as the tortious destruction of one spouse's love and affection for the other. While this claim is typically raised against a paramour, others can also be held liable for alienating the affections of a spouse, such as family members. Criminal Conversation is the act of engaging in sexual relations with a married person - even after separation. While there is a great deal of interplay between the two torts, they are legally distinct actions.

The “Heart Balm Torts” have been subject to considerable criticism. As of the time of this publication, 42 states have abolished these actions. Nevertheless, whether the actions are viewed as obsolete attempts to regulate morality or virtuous attempts to preserve the sanctity of marriage, the fact remains that claims for Alienation of Affections and Criminal Conversation remain alive and well in North Carolina. These actions have allowed North Carolina juries to compensate wronged plaintiffs for nearly a century, and upward of 200 actions are still filed in the state each year.

At Arnold & Smith, PLLC, we understand the immense emotional toll that can result from a spouse’s indiscretions. If you believe you may become a defendant in a claim for Alienation of Affections and/or Criminal Conversations, or if you believe you have a claim, do not hesitate to contact our office today. Let our attorneys fight for you to ensure you receive the favorable outcome you deserve.

Criminal Conversations

To succeed in a Criminal Conversations suit, a plaintiff must simply prove that one spouse had a sexual relationship with the defendant third-party while the valid marriage was still intact. As such, the only true defense to a criminal conversation claim is for the defendant to show that the couple was, in fact, separated with the intent to remain permanently separated or, alternatively, that there never was a valid marriage. Mere separation without the intent of at least one party to physically separate on a permanent basis, however, is immaterial, and an extramarital sexual act occurring during the separation can still result in a claim for criminal conversations.

Criminal conversation is akin to a “strict liability” tort in that it is irrelevant if the marriage was failing, the extramarital relationship was consensual, the spouse was actually the seducer, the defendant had no idea a marriage existed, or even if the spouse filing suit had also been unfaithful. The only relevant inquiry is whether the extramarital sex occurred. If so, a basis for a criminal conversation tort exists.

If you believe you may become involved in a Criminal Conversation action either as a plaintiff or defendant, do not hesitate to contact Arnold & Smith, PLLC today to discuss your options.

Alienation of Affections

The elements of an Alienation of Affections claim vary greatly from the elements of a Criminal Conversation claim. First, the plaintiff-spouse must show that a genuine, loving and affectionate relationship existed between the husband and the wife. Next, the plaintiff-spouse must prove that the paramour alienated the affections of the spouse and harmed the relationship. There is no requirement that an adulterous sexual relationship have occurred.

Furthermore, the plaintiff need not show that the defendant intentionally destroyed the marriage; the plaintiff is just required to show that the defendant intentionally engaged in conduct which could foreseeable harm the marriage. Accordingly, while a lack of knowledge that a marriage existed is not a defense against criminal conversation, it is a defense against an alienation of affections tort claim.

RELATED TORTS

At Arnold & Smith, PLLC our experienced attorneys are prepared to fight on your behalf. Our skilled advocates can prepare both powerful defenses and persuasive claims, so do not hesitate to contact our office today to set up an initial consultation. In addition to the pursuing and defending the “Heart Balm Torts,” our attorneys are prepared to handle the related torts of Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress and Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress.

Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress

North Carolina law provides a cause of action for plaintiffs who have been emotionally harmed by the intentional actions of a third party. To succeed in a claim for Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress, a plaintiff must first prove that the defendant’s conduct was “extreme and outrageous” and intended to harm the plaintiff. Next, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant’s conduct did, in fact, harm the plaintiff. If the plaintiff is successful, the defendant is liable for all damages suffered by the plaintiff, regardless of whether or not the defendant could have foreseen the extent of the harm.

Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress

North Carolina law also provides a cause of action for Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress. Similar to an action for Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress, a Plaintiff claiming Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress must show that the defendant engaged in “extreme and outrageous” conduct and that the conduct did, in fact, harm the plaintiff. This tort differs from its intentional counterpart in that a plaintiff need not prove that the defendant intended for his or her conduct to emotionally harm the plaintiff. Damages also differ slightly in that a defendant is only liable for the harms which were reasonably foreseeable to him at the time he engaged in the negligent conduct.

Resources:

If you believe you may become involved in any of the above actions, as a defendant or a plaintiff, do not hesitate to contact our office today to discuss your situation. North Carolina General Statute governing Alienation of Affection and Criminal Conversation actions:
http://www.ncga.state.nc.us/gascripts/statutes/statutelookup.pl?statute=52