RALEIGH, N.C. >> A jilted husband’s lawsuit against a doctor accused of stealing his wife’s love can proceed after a North Carolina appeals court ruled today that the husband can continue suing the spouse’s lover, seeking damages.
The state Court of Appeals decision resurrects a lawsuit that a trial judge had thrown out in Forsyth County, whose seat is Winston-Salem. The judge ruled that state law violates a person’s constitutional free speech and free expression rights to engage in intimate sexual activity and expression with other consenting adults.
North Carolina is one of only about a half-dozen states that still allow lawsuits accusing a cheating spouse’s lover of alienation of affection and criminal conversation.
“These laws were born out of misogyny and in modern times are often used as tools for enterprising divorce lawyers seeking leverage over the other side,” Judge Richard Dietz wrote in the unanimous ruling by a three-judge panel. Nevertheless, such lawsuits “are designed to prevent and remedy personal injury, and to protect the promise of monogamy that accompanies most marriage commitments.”
The court said Marc Malecek filed the lawsuit after his wife, a nurse, had an affair in 2015 with Dr. Derek Williams, a physician at the hospital where the woman works. Williams challenged the laws as unconstitutional, citing a 2003 U.S. Supreme Court decision voiding a Texas law outlawing homosexual acts because liberty meant allowing adults to make their own decisions about conduct.
Williams argued that the state laws “target extra-marital intimacy or sex because the State disapproves of expressing that intimacy while married to someone else,” Dietz wrote.
The largest alienation award in state history was in 2011, when a Wake County judge awarded $30 million to the former wife of a Raleigh business owner. The ex-wife had sued the businessman’s current spouse.
About 200 lawsuits alleging alienation are filed each year in North Carolina, but the potential liability is raised in virtually every divorce case that involves infidelity, Raleigh divorce attorney Lisa Angel said in an interview.
“People who are suffering a divorce as a result of an affair, there’s a lot of economic damage. It’s not that hard to make the case, as the court is making it clear here, that there’s injury to a person when this happens,” Angel said.
But the lawsuits “do not preserve marriages or protect families and do not promote the reconciliation of broken marriages,” Williams’ lawyers said in a statement. Instead, “most of these suits are brought after the marriage is over and the intense litigation over personal and private matters is instead used by vindictive ex-spouses as a type of blackmail.”
Williams hasn’t decided whether to appeal the ruling, his attorney Kim Bonuomo, said in an interview.
Marc Malecek’s attorney said he and his client were pleased by the ruling, but declined further comment.