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McGrath v. Dockendorf

Supreme Court of Virginia

December 15, 2016

JULIA V. McGRATH
v.
ETHAN L. DOCKENDORF

         FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF FAIRFAX COUNTY Daniel E. Ortiz, Judge

          OPINION

          STEPHEN R. McCULLOUGH JUSTICE.

         We resolve in this appeal whether the "heart balm" statute, Code § 8.01-220, bars an action in detinue for recovery of an engagement ring following the breakoff of the engagement. We conclude that the heart balm statute does not bar such an action, and, therefore, we affirm.

         BACKGROUND

         On August 25, 2012, Ethan L. Dockendorf proposed to Julia V. McGrath. She accepted. He offered her a two-carat engagement ring worth approximately $26, 000. In September 2013, after the relationship deteriorated, he broke off the engagement. The parties never married. Love yielded to litigation, and Dockendorf filed an action in detinue seeking, among other things, the return of the ring. In response, McGrath demurred to Dockendorf's complaint, arguing that it was barred by Code § 8.01-220. Following a hearing, the trial court agreed with Dockendorf. The court found that the ring was a conditional gift. It also held that Code § 8.01-220 did not bar the action in detinue for recovery of the ring. The court ordered McGrath to either return the ring within 30 days or it would enter judgment in the amount of $26, 000 for Dockendorf. This appeal followed.

         ANALYSIS

         The issue before us is one of statutory construction, which we review de novo. Jones v. Williams, 280 Va. 635, 638, 701 S.E.2d 405, 406 (2010).

         Virginia previously recognized suits for breach of a promise to marry. Such suits allowed an aggrieved fiancée to recover damages for improper breach of an engagement. See Grubb v. Sult, 73 Va. (32 Gratt.) 203, 207 (1879). Because it was "impossible to fix any rule or measure of damages, " the factfinder could "take into consideration all the circumstances of the case, the loss of comfort, the injury to the feelings, affections and wounded pride of the plaintiff." Id. at 209. The plaintiff could seek "expectation damages to place [him or] her in the financial and social position [he or] she would have attained had the marriage taken place (very much akin to the rights of a divorced spouse)." Alan Grant & Emily Grant, The Bride, the Groom, and the Court: A One-Ring Circus, 35 Cap. U. L. Rev. 743, 745 (2007). The plaintiff could also ask for "traditional tort damages to recover for the emotional anguish and humiliation of the broken engagement." Id. Finally, the plaintiff could seek "reliance damages including the lost economic security, opportunity costs of a foregone alternative such as employment, and also the impaired prospects of marrying another due to the [plaintiff's] status now as 'damaged goods.'" Id.

         "By the late nineteenth century, breach of promise to marry suits were more popular in America than they were in England." Id. at 746. Such "trials had become 'social phenomen[a]'--entertainment for the entire town and fodder for sensationalistic tabloid media." Id. Over time, such actions were severely "criticized as being anachronistic, contrary to modern notions of justice, and subject to abuse by blackmail." Note: Heartbalm Statutes and Deceit Actions, 83 Mich. L. Rev. 1770, 1770 (1985). Breach of promise to marry actions were criticized for excessive verdicts, fueled by "[l]ax evidentiary standards [that] allowed for private and sensational details to be admitted and often skewed the outcome of the case in favor of the plaintiff." Grant & Grant, 35 Cap. U. L. Rev. at 746.

         In response, beginning in the 1930's, states began to enact "statutes colloquially called 'heart balm' acts that abolished actions for breach of promise to marry and often abolished the related common law actions for alienation of affections, criminal conversation, and seduction as well." Heartbalm Statutes and Deceit Actions, 83 Mich. L. Rev. at 1771. See also Matthew v. Herman, 56 V.I. 674, 682-84 (V.I. 2012) (discussing reasons underlying legislative and judicial abrogation of amatory torts of alienation of affection and criminal conversation, as well as cause of action for breach of promise to marry). In 1968, [1] the Virginia General Assembly enacted Code § 8.01-220, which currently provides in subsection (A):

Notwithstanding any other provision of law to the contrary, no civil action shall lie or be maintained in this Commonwealth for alienation of affection, breach of promise to marry, or criminal conversation upon which a cause of action arose or occurred on or after June 28, 1968.

         In addition to an action for breach of promise to marry, Virginia law also recognized a separate right to seek the return of an engagement ring when the engagement is broken off. This right of action is rooted in the common law of conditional gifts. We held in Pretlow v. Pretlow, 177 Va. 524, 555, 14 S.E.2d 381, 388 (1941), 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 break off the marriage, he may recover from her the value of such present."

         McGrath argues that the text of the statute forecloses Dockendorf's action. She notes that an action to recover an engagement ring is, in effect, an action for breach of promise to marry because without a breached promise to marry there would be no action to recover the ring. Dockendorf responds that the text and purpose of the statute evince a legislative intent to abolish a specific type of common law action not at issue in this case. We agree with Dockendorf.

         "The primary objective in statutory construction is to determine and give effect to the intent of the legislature as expressed in the language of the statute." Appalachian Power Co. v. State Corp. Comm'n, 284 Va. 695, 706, 733 S.E.2d 250, 256 (2012). As a textual matter, Code § 8.01-220(A) bars three specific civil actions: (1) alienation of affection; (2) breach of promise to marry, and (3) criminal conversation.[2] The statute says nothing about the law of conditional gifts. Dockendorf did not file a civil action seeking damages based upon McGrath's breach of a promise to marry. Instead, he filed an action in detinue seeking the recovery of the ring or its monetary value on a theory of conditional gift. See Pavlicic v. Vogtsberger, 136 A.2d 127, 131 (Pa. 1957) (in seeking to recover an engagement ring, the plaintiff is ...


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