The nature and form of an action for breach of a promise to marriage is contractual. Generally, an action for breach of promise to marriage is not considered as injury for a tortuous claim. However, when the remedy claimed is in the nature of damages for breach, proceedings initiated is in the nature of tort[i].
Recoverable damages in a breach of promise to marriage include compensatory damages as well. Compensatory damages are claimed for injury to the feelings and health of a plaintiff as well as injury to his/ her reputation. A plaintiff may also recover damages for any financial loss resulting from the breach, comparable to recovery in a breach of any other contract action, in addition to compensation for loss of advantages that would have stemmed from a marital relationship with the defendant. An aggrieved party can also seek recovery losses sustained from expenditures made in preparation for the marriage. In awarding damages, a court will also consider the monetary value of a marriage which could have provided a house to an aggrieved party. Moreover a court must consider the pecuniary and social standing of a defendant as demonstrative of the condition of life that a plaintiff would have received by the marriage[ii].
In an action for breach of promise to marry, there can be no hard and fast rule of damages. The amount of damages to be given in a breach of promise to marriage is the court’s discretion. And the discretion is not so absolute as to be independent of a consideration of the evidence. The discretion is to be exercised with regard to all the circumstances of the particular case. The verdict must not be influenced by prejudice, passion, or corruption[iii].
In awarding damages for breach, a court will take into consideration the following facts:
- injury to the plaintiff’s health;
- effect of the breach on plaintiff’s feelings;
- plaintiff’s mental suffering;
- plaintiff’s wounded pride;
- plaintiff’s humiliation, pain, and mortification; and
- loss of the pecuniary benefits of a promise to marry.
In a breach of promise action in aggravation of the damages, sexual intercourse and pregnancy may be proved and considered. When a defendant falsely charges a plaintiff with unchastity, a court can award aggravated damages.
In states where an action for breach of promise to marry can be maintained, exemplary; punitive; or vindictive damages are given by way of punishment for the wrong committed by the defendant. Such punishment is awarded with a view of deterring others from like offences[iv]. Exemplary damages are generally given as a punishment where torts are committed with fraud, actual malice, or deliberate violence or oppression, or where the defendant acts willfully, or with such gross negligence as to indicate a wanton disregard of the rights of others[v].
A defendant in an action for a breach of promise to marry can in the mitigation of punitive damages prove any facts that will demonstrate that his/ her motive in breaking the promise was not bad. Additionally, s/he can prove that his/or her conduct was neither cruel nor malicious.
However, the fact that a plaintiff in a suit for damages for breach of promise to marry has succeeded in procuring another husband, does not compensate her for the injury done her by the defendant. Such a fact cannot avail him/her a satisfaction and discharge of damages[vi].
[i] Stanard v. Bolin, 88 Wn.2d 614 (Wash. 1977).
[ii] Fisher v. Barber, 62 Tex. Civ. App. 34 (Tex. Civ. App. 1910).
[iii] Chellis v. Chapman, 125 N.Y. 214 (N.Y. 1891).
[iv] Spellman v. Richmond & Danville R.R. Co., 35 S.C. 475, 488 (S.C. 1892).
[v] Hanewacker v. Ferman, 152 Ill. 321, 325 (Ill. 1894).
[vi] Fisher v. Barber, 62 Tex. Civ. App. 34 (Tex. Civ. App. 1910).