Hazen v. Scharringhaus and Barkes v. Gilbert

Evelyn Hazen outside courtroom in Covington, KY, 1937 - courtesy Knoxville News Sentinel

Blog post #2:

by Jane Van Ryan

Many Knoxvillians are familiar with Evelyn Hazen’s story. They know she was descended from the prestigious Mabry and Hazen families; they know her antebellum mansion has been converted into a museum; and they have heard that she sued her former fiancé. But few are aware of her impact on legal history.

Hazen’s suit against Ralph Scharringhaus became the litmus test for breach of promise to marry suits in Twentieth Century America. When the suit was filed in the 1930s, marriage was viewed largely as an economic transaction between a man and a woman, and society generally assumed women would continue to be financially dependent on men. By 1997, when the Kentucky Supreme Court considered a similar suit, those views had changed.

The 1997 decision was generated by Suzanne Barkes’ suit against her former fiancé Dr. Alvin D. Gilbert, a prominent Louisville chiropractor. He had proposed; she had sold her home and moved in with him; and she had agreed to an early buy-out from her job at Philip Morris, assuming they would be married within six months.

But during a motor-home vacation, one of his former lovers suddenly showed up, claiming that she was supposed to have a date with him that evening. Barkes told me during an interview that she never felt she “could trust him after that.” She filed suit and sought compensation for the loss of her home and her job.

The Barkes v. Gilbert case touched off a debate about the validity of Hazen’s landmark case against Scharringhaus. Hazen won her case and was awarded damages.  The Kentucky Supreme Court upheld Hazen’s victory on appeal and stated “…[I]t is proper to consider anxiety of mind produced by the breach; loss of time and expenses incurred in preparation for the marriage; advantages which might have accrued to plaintiff from the marriage; the loss of a permanent home and advantageous establishment; plaintiff’s loss of employment in consequence of the engagement;…the defendant’s conduct and treatment of plaintiff…” and various other factors.

Gilbert’s attorneys argued that Barkes could not meet the test established under Scharringhaus v. Hazen, and asserted that the breach of promise to marry action had become antiquated. The Kentucky Supreme Court agreed. As Chief Justice Robert L. Stephens wrote, “…[W]omen today possess far more economic, legal and political rights that did their predecessors…We believe the cause of action for breach of promise to marry has become an anachronism that has out-lived its usefulness and should be removed from the common law of the Commonwealth.”

Simply put, the Court ruled Barkes had loved and lost and did not deserve compensation. The decision also added Kentucky to the list of states that legislatively or judicially had abolished breach of promise to marry as a cause of action.