Court of Appeals holds fault in the breakup of an engagement does not determine ownership of the engagement ring

Posted Wednesday, May 9th, 2012 by Gregory Forman
Filed under Divorce and Marriage, Of Interest to Family Law Attorneys, Of Interest to General Public, South Carolina Appellate Decisions, South Carolina Specific

A question family law attorneys are sometimes called upon to answer is if and when a broken engagement requires the return of an engagement ring.  This is not technically a family law question, as the parties were never married and therefore their dispute doesn’t come within the purview of family court.  Further the answer was unclear with different states taking different approaches and South Carolina case law silent on the issue.

The May 9, 2012 Court of Appeals opinion in Campbell v. Robinson, 398 S.C. 12, 726 S.E.2d 22 (Ct. App. 2012), answers that question.  Campbell broke off his engagement with Robinson and sued in circuit court for return of the engagement ring.  Robinson counterclaimed for breach of promise to marry.  The trial judge charged the jury that fault in the breaking of the engagement determined ownership of the ring–that is, if it was Campbell’s fault Robinson did not have to return the ring and if was Robinson’s fault she did.  The jury found that Campbell was at fault for the breakup of the engagement but awarded Robinson no damages from her breach of promise to marry action. Both parties appealed.

The Court of Appeals first found that breach of promise to marry remains a viable cause of action in South Carolina but that the jury did not error in awarding Robinson no damages.  The Court of Appeals further held that fault in the breakup of the engagement did not determine ownership of the engagement ring.  Rather, it held, gift law applies and an engagement ring, being a conditional gift premised upon an expected marriage, needed to be returned if the wedding did not take place.

However because there were claims by Robinson that Campbell told her she could keep the ring after he ended the engagement, the Court of Appeals held there was some evidence turning this conditional gift into an absolute gift.  Thus, rather than ordering the ring returned to Campbell, the Court of Appeals remanded for a new trial.

This is a case I’d love the Supreme Court to accept certiorari on, if only to provide clarity.  Not every state has held that fault has no bearing on the return of an engagement ring and it would be great to have a definitive decision on this issue–if only to have a clear answer to the occasional queries I get about the return of engagement rings upon broken engagements.  Further, I’m not sure the Court of Appeals is correct about breach of promise to marry remaining a viable cause of action.  In Russo v. Sutton, 310 S.C. 200, 422 S.E.2d 750 (1992), the Supreme Court established a policy disfavoring “heart balm” actions.  Yet in a prior case, Bradley v. Somers, 283 S.C. 365, 322 S.E.2d 665 (1984), the Supreme Court explicitly refused to eliminate promise to marry claims. Campbell argued that Russo effectively overruled Bradley.  However, since S.C. Const. art. V § 9 states that ‘[t]he decisions of the Supreme Court shall bind the Court of Appeals as precedents.” the Court of Appeals considered itself unable to find Bradley overruled.  Only the Supreme Court can determine whether Russo overrules Bradley.  Because of this, the answers that Campbell provides to these issues might not be definitive.

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