The lover of a married man from Chevy Chase has been ordered by a Montgomery County judge to pay the man's estranged wife $60,000 in damages, believed to be the highest such award related to adultery ever granted in Maryland.
The judgment by Circuit Court Judge Richard B. Latham was based on the state's age-old "criminal conversation" law, which states that husbands and wives may collect damages from persons who have sexual relations with their spouses.
"I didn't consider it high, or I would not have given it to her," said Latham yesterday. "If you want to do these things, don't get caught."
The suit was filed by Helen J. Julhern, of 115 Quincy St., against Carolyn Ford, of Baltimore. Ford, who could not be reached for comment yesterday, has 30 days to ask for a reduction of the judgment, which includes $10,000 in compensatory and $50,000 in punitive damages.
Mulhern yesterday refused to comment on the case through her lawyer, Peter Messitte. "She's been through enough," Messitte said. "This is really an extraordinary case."
Mulhern stated that her husband had been having an affair with Ford since 1974. In 1976, the Mulherns separated and are now involved in a long divorce proceeding.
Ford did not defend herself in the suit, which Mulhern won by default. During last week's hearing to set the amount of damages, Ford did not appear in the courtroom.
Judge Latham said yesterday that he based the amount of the award on Helen Mulhern's psychiatric and medical expenses and on Carolyn Ford's "willful misconduct and malice" in breaking up the marriage.
Several Maryland lawyers said yesterday that "criminal conversation" cases rarely go to court. Most often, they are threatened in a divorce proceeding, and are similar to "alienation of affection" charges in other states. The few cases that do go to court, lawyers say, rarely result in substantial damage claims. But that may change.
"Marital rights are considered the same as property rights," said Bethesda attorney Beverly Anne Groner. "There seem to be more criminal conversation cases now than before. I'm aware of an increase in cases."
Stephen A. Moss, chairman of the Family Law section of the Montgomery County Bar Association, said: "Generally, more men file these type of suits because of the history of it." Moss said "criminal conversation" was based on common law going back to ancient England. "It meant interfering with property rights," he said yesterday, adding that women were historically thought of as a husband's property, rather than the other way around. Moss called the $60,000 award "a rather extraordinary figure."
Peter Messitte said yesterday they would attempt to collect the sum the way any judgment would be collected. "Sending the sheriff out, attaching assets, that sort of thing."
Although Ford may appeal the amount, Messitte said, she may not appeal the initial ruling against her. The lawyer also said he did not know the whereabouts of Mulhern's husband or Ford.
According to court papers, Helen and Leo G. Mulhern were married on July 2, 1959. Helen Mulhern, now a retired supervisor in the Department of Immigration and Naturalization, was the "primary bread winner" in the marriage. Leo G. Mulhern had suffered two business failures and had been unemployed for several periods.
At that point, court papers state, he was forced to take a job in Baltimore where he began a "liaison" with another woman, Carolyn Ford. In 1974, Leo Mulhern took an apartment in Baltimore.When his wife became suspicious because he was always "working late at the office," she asked her husband to give up the apartment and move back to Chevy Chase.
Court papers state that he did move back to the Washington suburbs, but not before subleasing the apartment to Carolyn Ford.
Although Mulhern denied that he was seeing another woman, Helen Mulhern hired private detectives who gathered evidence about his sexual relations with Ford, court papers say. Helen Mulhern herself went to Baltimore, court records state, where she observed her husband coming and going from Ford's apartment.
Mulhern also testified that Ford often called their home late at night. On one occasion, Mulhern testified, she asked the woman why she persisted in calling her husband. According to Mulhern, Carolyn Ford replied: "Who are you, his mother?"
In 1975, Leo Mulhern received a family inheritance, the amount of which was not specified in court records. In July, 1976, he moved out and the couple legally separated.
After the separation, Mulhern testified, her husband lived openly with Carolyn Ford, not bothering to conceal the arrangement from the Mulhern's teen-age son.
Helen Mulhern testified that her husband and Ford came to her house and shouted epithets through the door and that Carolyn Ford had mailed her and a neighbor a letter, blaming Helen Mulhern for the breakup of her marriage.