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‘Empty-chair’ trial nets $30M bench verdict for jilted Wake woman

Paul Tharp, Staff Writer//March 18, 2011

‘Empty-chair’ trial nets $30M bench verdict for jilted Wake woman

Paul Tharp, Staff Writer//March 18, 2011

By PAUL THARP, Staff Writer

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A Wake County judge last week awarded the jilted spouse of Donald Puryear $30.162 million in her suit against the woman she accused of stealing his affections.

The wealthy owner of a Raleigh trucking company is now married to the woman, Betty Devin, according to the lawyer who represented his ex-wife, Carol Puryear, in the case.

The lawyer, Stephanie Jenkins of Raleigh, said two different attorneys had represented Devin at various times during the lawsuit, and one had shown up on the trial date to argue an issue, but left before arguing damages because the lawyer had not been retained to represent Devin on that issue.

Jenkins said she didn’t recommend a damages figure to Superior Court Judge Carl Fox. “I relied on him to come up with a number,” she said.

Jenkins said Judge Fox had not yet reduced the ruling to a written order at press time. The case is Puryear v. Devin, case No. 09 CVS 0825.

Greenville attorney Cynthia Mills said heart-balm torts are alive and well in North Carolina, and verdicts appear to be growing in size. She represented another jilted spouse in her suit against her husband’s alleged paramour in Pitt County last year. That suit netted a $5.9 million verdict.

The high-dollar verdicts may represent an effort to send a message that judges and juries will continue to adhere to the state’s long-standing effort to protect the institution of marriage from interference by third parties, according to Raleigh attorney Michael Julyan.

But Jenkins said the Puryear case was unique because of the loss of lifestyle Carol Puryear suffered as a result of the alienation of her husband’s affections.

“I told [Judge Fox] that there were a number of intangibles to consider in this case,” she said.

Jenkins also represents Carol Puryear in a domestic case against her ex-husband. While Jenkins conceded that sometimes parties use heart-balm claims as leverage in underlying domestic actions, over the course of her nearly 20-year legal career, she has come to see the devastating effects that adulterous relationships can have on families.

“My attitude towards the tort has evolved,” she said. “When a party interferes with or destroys a genuine marital relationship, there are some significant losses suffered by aggrieved spouses and families.”

The only means by which the law may compensate aggrieved spouses for that loss is money, Jenkins said.

“It is the law in North Carolina, and I prosecute and defend these cases,” she said.

Charlotte attorney H. Edward Knox, who has handled dozens of heart-balm claims, expressed something short of surprise at the size of the verdict.

Knox said he couldn’t conceive of how the judge could award $30 million even considering that the case was uncontested. “But I am never surprised anymore about anything,” he said.

Asheville attorney Steve Kropelnicki said he has tried a few so-called “empty chair” cases. Empty-chair cases are those where the defendant has been properly served with notice of the lawsuit and applicable hearing dates, but fails to appear at trial.

Kropelnicki said he once got a $2 million verdict in such a case. “To me it meant nothing,” he said, because empty-chair verdicts “don’t count.”

That is because “any lawyer can get a jury to eat out of his or her hand when there isn’t another hand to eat out of,” he said.

But the Puryear case was tried before a judge, not a jury, and as Kropelnicki conceded, “In a case against the paramour of a very wealthy man, the economic damages may have amounted to thirty million.”

Mills said the fact that Jenkins had not provided the trial judge with a suggested damages figure was an anomaly.

She said that when defendants don’t show up in court, waiving the jury is the right thing to do. “Even if the judges don’t agree with these torts, they understand the law and know how to apply it. With jurors, you run the risk that they will disregard the law,” Mills said.

Wilmington attorney Mark Spencer Williams said that after the $9 million jury verdict in the 2010 case of Shakelford v. Lundquist, “we picked up quite a few heart-balm cases – prosecuting and defending – and I suspect this case will fuel the fire even more.”

The Shackelford verdict came after an empty-chair presentation, and Williams said those verdicts count.

“As long as the defendants have notice and an opportunity to be heard, their due process rights are addressed, and I think any verdict should absolutely count,” he said.


Verdict Report


Type of action: Alienation of affections and criminal conversation

Injuries alleged: Genuine love and affection alienated and destroyed; loss of emotional support; injury to emotional health and welfare; private and public humiliation; destruction of marital relationship and emotional anguish and pain

Case name: Carol Monsour Puryear v. Betty Carlton Devin

Case number: 09 CVS 0825

Court: Wake County Superior Court

Judge: Hon. Carl Fox

Verdict or settlement: Bench verdict

Date: March 14, 2011

Amount: $30.162 million total – $10.162 million in compensatory damages, plus $20 million in punitive damages

Plaintiff’s attorney: Stephanie Jenkins of Gailor Wallis Hunt (Raleigh)


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