The Maryland Court of Special Appeals has overturned a lower-court ruling that ordered the lover of a married man to pay $60,000 in damages to the man's estranged wife.

The three-judge panel in Annapolis threw out an award that was believed to have been the largest damage judgment granted in Maryland in an adultery-related case. The decision by the appellate court was an "unreported decision," which means that it can't be cited as a precedent.

In May 1980, Helen J. Mulhearn won a default judgment against her husband's lover, a Baltimore woman named Carolyn Ford, who has since married Mulhearn's ex-husband, Leo G. Mulhearn of Silver Spring. The award was granted under Maryland's "criminal conversation" law, a civil provision dating from pre-Revolutionary War days that allowed a man whose wife had had sexual relations with another man to seek compensation.

William N. Rogers, attorney for Carolyn Ford, argued that the judgment awarded in Montgomery Circuit Court by Judge Richard B. Latham should be tossed out because the law was, by tradition, a remedy available to men alone. The appellate court agreed.

Their ruling was based on an earlier decision by Special Court of Appeals Judge Rita C. Davidson. Three weeks after Helen Mulhearn won $10,000 in compensatory damages and $50,000 in punitive damages from Ford, Davidson threw out "criminal conversation" as a cause of action in Maryland for men or women, as many states had already done, ruling that it "provides for different benefits for . . . its citizens based soley upon their sex," and therefore violated Maryland's equal rights now.

"The reversal was predicted on the legal fact that a woman never had a right to recover damages from another women," said Rodgers." "But as a result of Judge Davidson's decision, there are no grounds for anybody of any sex. This case was the last of the Mohicans."

Leo Mulhearn, 63, who married Ford, 53, 48 hours after his divorce from his ex-wife Helen, said the ruling was "like Christmas morning."

The Mulhearns were married in 1959, and, according to court documents, Helen was the family breadwinner. In 1974, court papers state, Leo Mulhearn began a "liaison" with Ford in Baltimore. The Mulhearns were legally separated in 1976, and Helen testified that Ford and her husband had shouted "epithets" at her through the door of the Mulhearns house in Chevy Chase.

Helen Mulhearn's lawyer, Peter Messitte, said his client was "upset" and planned to appeal the ruling.