Tom Hansen, a lonely and troubled young man, sued his parents in 1978 because he didn't like the way they brought him up.
It was a unique case them. Now it seems rather ordinary, compared with other cases in recent months. A woman sued her husband for not carrying out his household chores. A rejected suitor sued his ex-fiancee to recover expensive tokens of love. A man sued his former lover -- after the baby was born -- because she had assured him she was on the pill.
A lot of these cases, including Hansen vs. Hansen, are thrown out of court eventually, but they attract attention and more lawsuits like them. They are the kind of stories you overhear on the bus or read about in The National Enquirer: the freak case, kid sues mom and dad, a joke.
But the frequency of these lawsuits is mounting, and the doors to the courthouse are slowly beginning to open for them. Serious questions are being asked about the portents for the law.
Can the courts, which often fail to resolve less subtle issues, settle disputes of the heart? Even if judges can assess who was at fault and award money, can they do it without further damaging an already injured family or personal relationship? Must every problem facing humanity be brought to the courts just because someone has been hurt?
Supreme Court Justice William H. Rehnquist warned in a speech recently that the response of courts to these cases "has not generally been to bounce these individuals out of the courtroom and back into their living-rooms. . . ."
This trend, he said, "cannot but endanger even further the vitality of the family as an institution in our society."
Tom Hansen, the man who sued his parents for $350,000 in Boulder, Colo., is now 26. His case is over. Hansen has hardly seen his parents since the suite was filed. He says he doesn't know where they are. His mother and father say they don't know where he is.
A sad and strange outcome, Hansen acknowledges now. For what he really wanted from his lawsuit, he says, "was love from them. I wanted attention."
If his case had been heard by a court, Hansen would have centered it on the physical workload -- backyard labor -- his father made him carry as punishment for his problems in school at the age of 13, on the fact that his parents sent him away to boarding school in Italy, how these and other actions damaged his ability to work and to function emotionally.
The suit, he said, was originally suggested by his psychiatrist as a form of therapy. "The suit was to be my treatment," Hansen said.
For Hansen's lawyer, Boulder attorney John Taussig, the legal theory was simple and should have been accepted by the Colorado courts, which refused to hear the complaint.
"It was an extension of the battered-child syndrome," Taussig said. "If a kid is physically abused, we have precedent allowing a suit for damages against the parents.
"Here you had emotional rejection, rejection that screws up a child for life. Isn't it a small difference between this and physical abuse?"
The family heard about their son's suit before it was filed, said Shirley Hansen, the mother, but, like everyone else, they regarded it as a joke.
She was "devastated" and "humiliated" she said. "Being a parent is the most important thing you can do. Your kids are just fundamental to your existence. Something like this just doesn't belong."
"I thought the parents were really held up to public ridicule," said E. Gregory Martin, the parents' lawyer. "I think they love him, but they're just beside themselves as to what to do."
Tom Hansen is equally uncertain about his future. "I'm going out to California," he said in an interview from Colorado. "I think I'm going to try to connect with some consciousness groups."
"This is the problem," said Jay Folberg, a professor at Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland, Ore., and an official of the Association of Family Conciliation Courts.
"Litigation only fans the flames," Folberg said. "The adversary process -- by definition -- pits people against one another and results in a winner and a loser. Whenever you have a relationship that should continue, having a winner and loser only creates further friction."
That is just one reason, Folberg says, that many of these personal cases may not belong in court, or belong there only as the final resort, after efforts at conciliation.
"You have people dealing with each other without any written contract," he said."They never anticipated being where they are now. Lawyers, judges and others in the adversary system are trained for a type of precision. And precision may be the antithesis of what we want to help parties resolve matters so sensitive."
Lawyers who approve of such personal cases understand the difficulties courts have with the nuances and the undefinables. They also say they understand the damage that can be done by going into the harsh adversary climate of the courts.
But they argue that the damage has already been done.
If a child cannot sue his or her parents for psychological damage, can a wife sue her husband for failing to shovel snow off the front walk?
Most states have prohibited such lawsuits between spouses in order to protect the integrit of marriages and to prevent collusion between husbands and wives who want to defraud insurance companies by collecting damages for household injuries.
But during the past decade, more than half the states have either eliminated or sharply modified this concept. Massachusetts did so last month in the case of Brown vs. Brown.
William Brown, of Wakefield, Mass., allegedly had responsibility for shoveling ice and snow off the walk and driveway in front of the family's home. s
One winter morning in 1978, according to his wife, Brown had to leave home in a hurry, and neglected to do the shoveling. She slipped, broke her pelvis and sued him for $35,000.
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court had already eliminated a ban on suits between husbands and wives stemming from automobile accidents. The court ruled last month that eliminating it for other kinds of damages is the next logical step.
The ban on such suits is based on the idea that the husband and wife are legally one person, the Massachusetts court said, but it is time to change those "antediluvian assumptions concerning the role and status of women in marriages . . . Mrs. Brown should at least get a chance to prove her case in court."
Mrs. Shirley Brown seems confident that her marriage can survive the upcoming lawsuit. "She loves her husband," her lawyer, Charles Blumsack, told reporters. "This has not created any problems."
The Florida Supreme Court reached an opposite conclusion in a similar case now before the U.S. Supreme Court, involving a suit between husband and wife (Raisen vs. Raisen) stemming from an auto accident.
The Florida court would not allow the suit. "There have been many changes in Florida since 1829 [when the ban on husband-wife suits originated] but the reasons for it still exist." the court said.
The suits "can have an upsetting and embittering effect upon domestic tranquility and the martial relationship," the Florida court ruled.
The Florida judges were also wary of collusion, warning:
"We expect too much of human nature if we believe that a husband and wife who sleep in the same bed, eat at the same table and spend money from the same purse can be truly adversary to each other in a lawsuit when any judgment obtained . . . will be paid by an insurance company and will ultimately benefit both spouses."
Another avenue for new litigation is lawsuits over broken promises. Marie Hajus, a Connecticut teacher, was engaged for two years to an airline pilot, Robert Piccininni. He says he bought gifts for her and her children and paid for substantial improvements to her home.
Then she told him the wedding was off. Their relationship dissolved and, eventually, each married someone else.
Last year, Piccininni sued. He asked the court to award him the value of all the gifts and home improvements, which he estimated to be $40,000. "Every salad bowl that was purchased," according to Diane Ruben, a New Haven attorney who is defending Hajus.
The Connecticut Supreme Court decided in April that such cases should be heard, even though the state has a legal prohibition against "breach of promise to marry" suits.
The law was designed to prevent the courts from adjudicating confused feelings, sentimental bruises, blighted affections, wounded pride and mental anguish.
Called a heart-balm law, it was also designed to prevent such suits from becoming a club to be held over the head of a reluctant bride or groom.
But it is possible, the Connecticut court said, to weed out those factors and concentrate on purely legal elements. Was property exchanged? Was it exchanged under fraudulent circumstances? The courts can handle such questions, Connecticut's judges decided, and allowed the case to proceed to trial.
It becomes "a dry economic claim," said lawyer Ruben. "It has to do with the economic intentions of the parties. It is not inappropriate for a court."
Because few of these cases have reached the testimony stage, Ruben's view is untested. But the possibilities for confusion are clear, if not in this specific case, then certainly in others.
Was the couple really engaged to be married? How did he ask her?What did she say when she accepted? Was it a fraudulent engagement? Did she really intend to marry? Did she really love him? Did he love her?
Piccininni vs. Hajus is, in some respects, an extension of the "palimony" suit, brought to notoriety in Michele Triola Marvin's case against actor Lee Marvin. But there is an important difference: the couple in Connecticut never lived together.
The potential, many lawyers believe, is mind-boggling.