North Carolina Supreme Court Rules Adultery falls under Personal Injury Statutes
Most of us don't think of adultery when we hear the term "personal injury", but the North Carolina Supreme Court handed down a decision this week calling it just that. The North Carolina Court was called upon to determine whether or not criminal conversation-the cause of action related to committing adultery with another's spouse-could be classified as personal injury because of a special provision in the North Carolina statute of limitations for personal injury cases.
That provision, generally referred to as the "discovery rule", allows a personal injury victim to file a lawsuit for up to three years after discovery of the injury. A North Carolina court of appeals last year held that a criminal conversation claim had to be filed within three years of the end of the affair, even if the injured spouse hadn't learned of the adultery in time to file suit.
In order to determine whether Donald Misenheimer's criminal conversation claim could proceed, the court had to determine whether or not criminal conversation fell within the definition of personal injury. Misenheimer's claim was filed within three years of the date he learned of his wife's affair, but five years after the affair ended. Thus, if the discovery rule applied, his case could go forward. If the claim didn't fall within the definition of "personal injury" and the discovery rule did not apply, then Misenheimer had filed his claim too late.
The Court referred to the Black's Law Dictionary definition of "personal injury", which includes both harm "caused to a person, such a s a broken bone, a cut, a bruise, bodily injury" and "any invasion of a personal right, including mental suffering and false imprisonment".
The North Carolina Supreme Court concluded that criminal conversation was an invasion of a personal right, and as such fell under the personal injury statute. Therefore, the discovery rule applied to adultery claims. The Court also noted that applying the discovery rule to criminal conversation cases was in accord with North Carolina's interest in preserving the sanctity of marriage, and that failure to apply the discovery rule would have the "unacceptable consequence of rewarding a defendant.for deceptive and clandestine behavior that successfully prevents discovery of the extramarital conduct until after the three year statute of limitations has expired." The time period for discovery isn't without limitation, however. A related "statute of repose" caps actions at ten years after the last act of the affair.
The ruling will allow a spouse to file suit within three years of finding out about an affair, and to collect monetary damages for actual damage and for mental anguish.