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The Legal Price of Adultery Goes Down

Publication Date: 
June 24, 2014
Lawrence M. Friedman and Joanna Grossman

Professor Lawrence Friedman contributes to a Verdict piece on the recent changes to longstanding laws regarding adultery in North Carolina. 

Angela Rothrock was an angry woman. On February 12th, 2014, she filed a lawsuit in Forsyth County, North Carolina, against Sherry Cooke of Winston-Salem; she claimed that Cooke had had an “adulterous affair” with Angela’s husband, Timothy Gray Rothrock.

Historically, there were two causes of action that might allow a man to sue his wife’s lover, or a woman to sue her husband’s mistress: criminal “conversation” and alienation of affection (collectively known, along with some others, as “heartbalm” actions). Most states have long since thrown these claims into the ashbin of history, but North Carolina, along with only a small number of other states, has up to now stubbornly preserved them. In a recent ruling,Rothrock v. Cooke, a lower court judge in North Carolina has decided that enough is enough. He ruled that these causes of action were no longer valid in North Carolina, although for somewhat strange reasons. Just days later, the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia reached a similar conclusion, eliminating the tort of criminal conversation, but for more sensible reasons.