GREENSBORO, N.C. — North Carolina could soon break up with Alienation of Affection, its controversial, centuries-old law allowing a spouse to sue the 'homewrecker' who ruined the marriage.
A group of state House democrats is putting the lovers' lawsuits under fire, filing legislation to abolish the statute and overhaul major components of NC's divorce laws.
"I have so many cases that have come our way since we last spoke that it...has surprised me," said Forsyth County-based trial attorney Scott Smith, Esq.
WFMY News 2 first sat down with Smith a couple years ago, shortly after an appeals court upheld his client's high-profile case for Alienation of Affection.
"One of my arguments was -- just because you don't like something doesn't mean it's unconstitutional," he explained.
North Carolina is one of only six states (Mississippi, South Dakota, New Mexico, Utah, Hawaii) plus Puerto Rico where Alienation of Affection -- considered a 'heart balm' tort -- is still legal. A spouse can sue any person who 'alienated' the happy marriage.
"Some lawyers call it a mother-in-lawsuit, because, indeed, an in-law can get in the way," said Greensboro-based family law attorney Jessica Culver, Esq.
Culver feels the law's origin is antiquated.
"This comes from the same dogma that created the idea that women -- wives -- are their husband's property," she said.
North Carolina first recognized Alienation of Affection in Barbee v. Armstead in 1849. Two decades later, the Married Women's Property Act let women sue, too. A 2009 revision limited the statute of limitations to three years and specified the affair or interference must have started before the married couple legally separated.
"This is an issue we've been talking about for years...and I think it's time to modernize that," said NC Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford).
Harrison co-sponsors the latest effort to squash the statute. Twin bills would revamp NC's divorce laws. HB 485 and SB 459 would shorten the legal separation period for one year to six months and waive it entirely, if the divorce is uncontested and does not involve minor children. The legislation also would abolish Alienation of Affection.
"There was a particularly high-profile case involving one of our colleagues recently that might've given some members pause," Harrison explained.
That member is former NC Rep. Rick Gunn (R-Alamance, Guilford), sued last August by the husband of his then-legislative aide.
RELATED: North Carolina Sen. Rick Gunn accused of breaking up legislative aide's marriage, lawsuit claims
The suit, filed by Arthur Johns, claims Gunn broke up the marriage. Gunn's attorney, Nathaniel 'Nat' Smith, told WFMY News 2 he couldn't comment specifically on the open case but said, "It'll be dismissed in the near future."
Harrison is doubtful the bills will advance through the general assembly this legislative session, as they have only Democrat sponsors. House majority whip, Rep. Jon Hardister (R-Guilford) noted the House bill came up in the Judiciary 2 Committee Apr. 28 and failed on a tied vote.
Hardister wrote, "I was the only Republican to vote in favor of the bill in committee. It likely won't resurface again this session."
For now, the suits continue at a rate Smith didn't anticipate. He said he has 20 cases currently in litigation, most of which likely will settle outside of court.
"I will tell you, the number of calls I get per week is staggering and phenomenal," he said.
Yet, while money can mediate, it might not mend misery.
"Can it fix a broken heart?" pondered Culver. "I'm not so sure."
Smith is unsure whether the law will exist in the near future.
"Your guess is as good as mine in that regard. I didn't think this would be around by 2010," he said.
So, for now, the law lives...until love prevails or legislation do it part.