It was certainly an affair to remember: two high school sweethearts reunited at a price tag of $1.4 million.
That was the total in the largest jury award ever for a lawsuit based on "alienation of affection," a cause of action in state law that allows a jilted spouse to sue when his or her partner leaves to be with someone else.
College wrestling coach Tom Oddo filed suit against the Florida doctor who had an affair with his wife. In May, a Charlotte jury awarded Oddo $1.4 million for the loss of his spouse.
Debby Tyson Oddo and Jeff Presser were high school sweethearts who reunited 15 years later after a flurry of romantic e-mails. They have since divorced their spouses and gotten married.
The award coincides with a debate in North Carolina's General Assembly, which is considering whether to ban such lawsuits by revoking the law that allows them. Nine states have "alienation of affection" laws on the books: Alaska, Hawaii, Illinois, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico, North Carolina, South Carolina and Utah.
Should Laws Stand?
Supporters of adultery and alienation of affection laws argue that the laws help uphold marriage and good morals. But critics contend the laws are archaic vehicles used to carry frivolous lawsuits born of both greed and revenge. And they say the laws stem from antiquated beliefs that women should be treated as property.
Presser, a Florida family doctor, had a young son with the wife he divorced for Debby Oddo. The Oddos have three children together, ages 10, 7 and 3.
Stan Brown, who is Oddo's attorney, argued that if not for Presser's persistence, Debby Oddo would have ended the affair and salvaged her marriage, preserving her family. Brown, a former Charlotte trial judge who has tried scores of similar cases, said the law helps protect families.
But Tom Bush, Presser's attorney, argued that the lawsuits hurt families by amplifying the conflict and pain that already accompany divorce. He said that the marriage was doomed anyway.
Presser has not paid the judgment yet, pending appeals, which could last months or years.
Reunited, and the Love Triangle
Debby Oddo had started dating Jeff Presser in eighth grade, in her hometown of Jacksonville, Fla. They dated throughout high school, than went to different out-of-state colleges, breaking up in 1984 when they were both college sophomores.
Presser became a doctor and married in 1990, settling in West Palm Beach, Fla., where he and his wife had a son. According to court records, the former sweethearts kept in touch sporadically until 1995.
The Oddos' marriage seemed happy, but around the time of their 10th anniversary, Debby Oddo told the jury that she was beginning to re-evaluate the state of their union.
She claimed her husband treated her like a child, controlled her time and their money, and never told her he loved her. The Oddos started sleeping in separate beds. There was little affection to alienate by the time she reconnected with Presser, Debby Oddo said.
That reconnection came in February 1999, when out of the blue, Debby Oddo called Presser. She phoned him again a few days later, and they talked about how they felt trapped in loveless marriages, and confessed they had feelings for each other.
Love Notes and a Rendezvous
As the communications continued, Presser set up new e-mail accounts so they could exchange love notes. In March, Debby Oddo persuaded Presser to fly to Charlotte and meet her for a weekend at a hotel.
By May, they were separated from their spouses and heading for divorces. The couple married in the summer of 2000, first by an airplane captain for fun, and then by a magistrate to make it official.
Tom Oddo, who had intercepted phone calls and e-mail messages between his wife and her lover, hired private investigators to prove their affair. He tried to talk his wife into quitting it. When she refused, he sued Presser in 1999.