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'Planet Money': A lawsuit for your broken heart


Now, from the Planet Money team, we have the story of a legal dispute based on an obscure law. It starts with a man suing over the most important economic entanglement of his life - his marriage. Here's Erika Beras.

ERIKA BERAS, BYLINE: A few years ago, after Keith King found out his wife was having an affair and they got divorced, he reconnected with an old friend. He found out that his friend's spouse had also cheated.

KEITH KING: And she's like, yeah, I'm suing the person that my husband cheated with. I'm suing him. I'm like, what in the world are you talking about?

BERAS: She was talking about a type of lawsuit called a heart balm tort. You probably know what a tort is. It's where someone is injured, and they sue for damages - like the lawsuit over a McDonald's hot coffee. A heart balm tort is like that, but for love.

JILL HASDAY: Heart balm - B-A-L-M - like, think about, like, ChapStick or something - balm. It's supposed to be like it's healing a broken heart.

BERAS: This is Jill Hasday, a law professor at the University of Minnesota. Despite this image of it being used to heal a broken heart, heart balm torts actually look at marriage in this very unromantic way - in an economic way.

HASDAY: Marriage is, for most people, the most important economic decision of their lives. It's a tremendous economic interweaving.

BERAS: And go back, back in time, the economic part of marriage was even more pronounced. Heart balm torts date back hundreds of years, and this is how they were often used. Say a woman was engaged to a man, but he deceived her. The deceived woman could sue the would-have-been husband, claiming a breach of promise - like, essentially, a broken contract.

HASDAY: You have to keep in mind that the social and economic pressure to get married, especially for women, is almost overwhelming.

BERAS: Back then, these heart balm lawsuits were a form of economic protection for women. But in the 1930s, they began going away.

HASDAY: There's a wave of states getting rid of these until you just don't see these cases, except in North Carolina, which has robust alienation-of-affections case law.

BERAS: Yes, North Carolina, where Keith King lives and where another kind of heart balm lawsuit is prevalent. That's one where you sue the person who meddled in your marriage, and it's used by men and women alike. There are still, like, 200 heart balm lawsuits filed every year. Keith sued the man his wife had had an affair with. The judge awarded him damages of $8.8 million. With that decision, the judge essentially put a price on the dissolution of Keith's marriage and on his heartache.

So do you have $8.8 million now?

KING: No, mmm-mmm - I don't.

BERAS: The other man actually filed for bankruptcy after the lawsuit. Now, that doesn't make his debt go away. But unless he gets a bunch of money someday, Keith has nothing to collect on. So Keith, who wanted a balm for his broken marriage - he didn't get that, and he also didn't get any money.

I'm Erika Beras, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Erika Beras
Erika Beras (she/her) is a reporter and host for NPR's Planet Money podcast.