JULIA V. McGRATH
ETHAN L. DOCKENDORF
THE CIRCUIT COURT OF FAIRFAX COUNTY Daniel E. Ortiz, Judge
STEPHEN R. McCULLOUGH JUSTICE.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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,  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.
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."
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.
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. 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