March 22, 2010 — -- Cynthia Shackelford's story could have been no different than that of any other aggrieved wife: The North Carolina woman, 60, thought her husband Allan was deeply in love with her. Then came his late nights at the office and suspicious charges on his credit card and cell phone bills. And finally, a private investigator confirmed what she had feared: Her husband, she said, was having an affair.
But Shackelford's story has a $9 million twist. Under centuries-old North Carolina case law, Shackelford sued her husband's alleged mistress, Anne Lundquist, for "alienation of affection," charging that the woman broke up her 33-year marriage.
Last week, Shackelford won. A jury awarded her $5 million in compensatory damages and $4 million in punitive damages to be paid by Lundquist.
"She set her sights on him. ... She knew he was married," Shackelford said of Lundquist Monday. "You don't go after married men and break up families."
Lundquist, 49, did not respond to requests for comment from ABCNews.com, but told The Greensboro News & Record last week that she planned to appeal the case.
In a post to the newspaper's Web site, Allan Shackelford said his marriage didn't fail because of Lundquist.
Shackelford, 62, wrote that he had had "numerous affairs going back to the first two years" of his marriage and that the couple had "significant problems in their marriage for years, including three rounds of marital counseling that failed."
Shackelford did not respond to an e-mail from ABCNews.com.
The large dollar figures surrounding the Shackelford case are unusual, but the lawsuit itself is not -- at least not in North Carolina. The state is one of just seven states to recognize alienation of affection claims, in which spouses can sue third parties that they allege interfered in their marriages.
The state sees some 200 alienation of affection claims a year, according to the Rosen Law Firm of Raleigh, N.C., and firm founder Lee Rosen said that he handles about six to a dozen such cases each year.
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Most states once had the law but abolished it, he said. North Carolina legislators debated getting rid of it too, but ultimately decided against it.
"Our conservative legislators don't want to be known as the people that voted to, in effect, legalize adultery," Rosen said.
The law was in the news earlier this year after Andrew Young, a longtime aid to disgraced former presidential candidate and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, said Edwards' wife threatened to bring an alienation of affection claim against Young.
ABC News reported in February that in such a lawsuit, Elizabeth Edwards could argue that Young, by allegedly helping cover up John Edwards' extramarital affair with campaign videographer Rielle Hunter, was partly responsible for the failure of the Edwards' marriage.
Rosen said that alienation of affection claims evolved from common law under which women were considered the property of their husbands. If another man was accused of stealing his "property," a husband could sue him for damages. Today, both men and women sue under the law.
Cynthia Shackelford feels fortunate to live in a state where alienation of affection claims are recognized. Though she blames both her husband and Lundquist for the affair, she hopes her case convinces women to think twice about pursuing romances with married men.
"It takes two to do it, but it does sometimes take one to push in to something and create a problem," she said.
Shackelford said that her husband and Lundquist met while Lundquist worked as a dean at Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C.. The college, at the time, received legal service from Allan Shackelford, who was then practicing law in North Carolina. (Shackelford's North Carolina law license since has been suspended for his failure to complete continuing legal education requirements in the state, according to the North Carolina State Bar.)
In her lawsuit, Shackelford claimed Lundquist began "deliberately to seduce" Allan Shackelford in November 2004 or earlier.
Cynthia Shackelford told ABCNews.com that at first, Allan Shackelford began giving Lundquist rides home from work. Eventually, she began noticing unexplained charges to expensive restaurants on his credit card bills and cell phone bills showing many calls to Lundquist.
When Shackelford confronted her husband about her suspicions, he would insist that Lundquist was "just a friend."
Husband Hasn't Paid Alimony
Still worried, Shackelford hired a private investigator. The investigator, she said, saw her husband and Lundquist spending time together at the Shackelfords' Greensboro home.
"It was at that point [that] I went and saw the attorney," Cynthia Shackelford said. "I said, 'This is not going to fly anymore.'"
The couple separated in 2005 and sold the five-bedroom Greensboro home. Today, Cynthia Shackelford lives with her dog in an apartment in Raleigh, N.C., and struggles to make ends meet through an hourly job at a retail store.
A former teacher, Shackelford said she gave up that career to raise the couple's two children and now, at 60, her job options are limited.
Shackelford's lawyer, William Jordan, said her husband was ordered to pay her $5,000 a month in alimony, but he has yet to do so. That may be part of the reason that the jury in last week's case, Jordan said, opted to provide his client such a large award.
But it's unclear whether Cynthia Shackelford will ever see any of the $9 million she's now owed by Lundquist. Lundquist, who did not appear at last week's trial, told The Greensboro News & Record that she plans to appeal the case.
"I'm so caught off guard by everything," she said. "I don't have a lot of money, so where this $9 million comes from is kind of hysterical."
Scant funds by alleged cheaters is one reason why many North Carolina alienation of affection claims never make it to court, Rosen said.
"They're not worth suing most of the time," he said. "For this to really work out, you've got to have a paramour [who] has substantial assets."
Cynthia Shackelford, who owes tens of thousands of dollars in legal bills, said she hopes to recover at least some money from Lundquist.
But she said she's also focused on something more intangible -- spreading awareness about the harm posed by adultery.
She said her distress over her husband's alleged affair caused her health problems, including severe weight loss. She worries about how her children, now 23 and 27, are coping with the mess.
At least one of her children, Amy Shackelford, has made her thoughts on the subject public: In a message posted on a News & Record blog, Amy Shackelford called her father a "dirtbag" and "delusional narcissist" who "emotionally and financially abandoned his entire family for the last five years."
Cynthia Shackelford said the lawsuit "was worth it to do just to send a message" about extramarital affairs.
"I wanted other people to understand, before they do it, how much it hurts," she said.
ABC News' James Hill and Lee Ferran contributed to this report.