On November 23, 1999, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania adopted a “no-fault” approach to decide disputes over whether an engagement ring should be returned when the engagement is broken and the marriage does not take place.
This ruling should come as no surprise to followers of Emily Post, the dowager duchess of manners:
The court stated that the no-fault approach is the modern trend and relieves courts from the onerous task of sifting through broken engagements to determine fault.
“If an engagement is broken, the woman must return to her former fiance the ring and all other gifts of value that he has given”. Etiquette – A Guide to Modern Manners, 375 & 756 (14th ed. 1984).
The facts of Lindh v. Surman1 are simple. Rodger and Janis *became engaged in August of 1993. Rodger gave Janis a diamond engagement ring worth $21,200. In October, 1993, Rodger broke off the engagement and Janis returned the ring. The couple reconciled and became engaged again. However, in March of 1994, Rodger broke off the engagement for a second time and asked Janis for the return of the ring. This time, Janis said no. Rodger went to court, seeking return of the ring or a judgment for its value.
Janis won the first round, before a panel of arbitrators in Allegheny County. Rodger won the next round, after a brief non-jury trial. Janis appealed to the Superior Court, which affirmed the trial court2. The Supreme Court granted allocatur.
Both parties agreed that an engagement ring is a conditional gift. Janis argued that she had fulfilled the condition of the conditional gift by accepting Rodger’s marriage proposal. Rodger argued that Janis was entitled to keep the ring only if she satisfied the condition of going through with the marriage. Janis also argued that Rodger should not be able to recover the ring because he was “at fault” for breaking off the engagement. Rodger disagreed. The court agreed with Rodger.
In her opinion, Justice Newman, writing for the majority, rejected a fault-based theory which would require the court to examine not only who broke the engagement and why, but also whether that conduct was justified. The court stated that the no-fault approach is the modern trend and relieves courts from the onerous task of sifting through broken engagements to determine fault.
According to Justice Newman, a fault-based inquiry “would invite the parties to stage the most bitter and unpleasant accusations against those whom they nearly made their spouse, and a court would have no clear guidance with regard to how to ascertain who was at fault”.
The bottom line: Rodger, inconstant though he was, is entitled to get the ring back. Emily Post’s fans may retire gracefully to the veranda for a glass of sherry.
1 No. 39 W.D. Appeal Docket 1998
2 702 A. 2d 560 (1997)
3 Justices Castille, Saylor and Cappy dissented