By Julianne Tobin Wojay, Bloomberg BNA

A statute barring lawsuits for a person’s breach of a promise to marry doesn’t bar an action for the recovery of an engagement ring after the wedding is called off, a unanimous Virginia Supreme Court held Dec. 15.

Explaining that the so-called “heartbalm” law doesn’t foreclose an action for recovery of property exchanged in contemplation of marriage, the court followed the majority view among other states on this issue.

Love Yielded to Litigation

When Julia McGrath accepted Ethan Dockendorf’s marriage proposal, he gave her a two-carat engagement ring worth $26,000. He broke off the engagement a year later and asked for the ring back. Julia refused.

As stated by the supreme court, “[l]ove yielded to litigation,” and he sued her. Finding that the ring was a conditional gift, the trial court ordered Julia to either return it or pay Ethan $26,000. She appealed.

Entertainment, Blackmail

On his way to affirming that ruling, Justice Steven R. McCullough detoured for a look at life in the U.S. back when lawsuits for breach of a promise to marry were common. Quoting from a law review article, he noted that the trials in those cases “had become ‘social phenomen[a]’ — entertainment for the entire town and fodder for sensationalistic tabloid media.”

Also noting that the cases were “subject to abuse by blackmail,” McCullough said that in 1968, the Virginia legislature enacted the heartbalm statute to do away with such lawsuits (along with actions for alienation of affections and criminal conversation).

Separate Right

Virginia law recognized a separate right to seek the return of an engagement ring when the engagement is broken off, he continued, saying that this right is rooted in the common law of conditional gifts.

He noted that Pretlow v. Pretlow, 14 S.E.2d 381, 388 (1941), held that when a prospective husband makes a present to his intended wife “and the inducement for the gift is the fact of her promise to marry him, if she breaks off the marriage, he may recover from her the value of such present.”

McCullough rejected Julia’s reliance on the heartbalm statute in arguing that Ethan didn’t have a case against her. She contended that an action to recover an engagement ring is, in effect, an (abolished) action for breach of a promise to marry because without a such a breach there would be no action to recover the ring.

Conditional Gift

Instead, he agreed with Ethan that the text and purpose of that statute evince a legislative intent to abolish a specific type of common-law action not at issue in this case. “The statute says nothing about the law of conditional gifts,” he pointed out.

Ethan’s action differs from one for breach of a promise to marry “in significant ways,” McCullough said, observing that “[b]reach of promise to marry suits were intended to broadly compensate a plaintiff for the loss and humiliation of a broken engagement.”

In contrast, Ethan’s action seeks to recover specific personal property and damages for its detention, he said.

“Simply put,” McCullough said, “due to its limited scope and the limited relief afforded by it, [an] action rooted in a theory of conditional gift is not and does not resemble an action for breach of a promise to marry.”

Citing cases from Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, he also noted that a majority of other jurisdictions have likewise rejected the argument that their state’s heartbalm statute forecloses an action for recovery of a ring or other property. See also Albinger v. Harris, 48 P.3d 711, 28 FLR 1363 (Mont. 2002).

(In a footnote, he acknowledged a split of authority over whether fault is a relevant consideration in actions to recover an engagement ring. Compare Fowler v. Perry, 830 N.E.2d 97, 31 FLR 1417 (Ind. Ct. App. 2005), with Clippard v.Pfefferkorn, 168 S.W.3d 616, 31 FLR 1356 (Mo. Ct. App. 2005). However, he said,“[w]e need not resolve the question in this case [because] it is not relevant to our construction of the heart balm statute.”)

Not Old Wine

McCullough gave another reason for his conclusion — that the legislature “is presumed to be aware of the decision of this Court when enacting legislation.” Thus, he said, “we presume” it was aware of Pretlow when it enacted the heartbalm statute and could have barred actions for the recovery of engagement rings “[h]ad [it] wished to.”

Going on to reject Julia’s reliance on McDermott v. Reynolds, 530 S.E.2d 902, 26 FLR 1411 (Va. 2000), he said that unlike the plaintiff there — who tried to bring an abolished heartbalm action in the guise of an action for the intentional infliction of emotional distress — Ethan “is not trying to pour old wine into new wineskins.”

He “simply seeks to recover property given as a conditional gift when the condition that formed the basis for the gift did not occur,” McCullough said, affirming the trial court.

Chief Justice Donald W. Lemons and Justices S. Bernard Goodwyn, William C. Mims, Elizabeth A. McClanahan, Cleo E. Powell and D. Arthur Kelsey concurred.

Julia was represented by John R. Walk, Jacqueline Cook Hedblom and Franklin R. Cragle, III, of Hirschler Fleischer, Richmond. John C. Altmiller, Jr., and Joshua A. Morehouse, of Pesner Kawamoto, Tysons Corner, Va., represented Ethan.

The case is McGrath v. Dockendorf, 2016 BL 416658, Va., No. 160262, Dec. 15, 2016.

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