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Top Court Ruling May Expand Rights of Unmarried Couples

© Daily Record Saturday June 4, 1994 Vol. 7 No 192
By Peggy Wright

A state Supreme Court ruling that gives a former Roxbury woman the right to pursue an injury lawsuit over her fiancé’s death could have a wider impact, attorneys said yesterday.

The immediate impact of the 5-1 ruling handed down Thursday is simple. The woman, Eileen Dunphy, will be able to pursue her lawsuit and to let a jury decide whether she is entitled to cash award for “emotional distress” because she witnessed her boyfriend being hit by a car on Route 80 in Mount Arlington in 1990. He suffered gruesome injuries and died a day later.

The wider impact, lawyers say, is that couples who can demonstrate to a judge or jury the intimate, enduring quality of their relationship – including gay and lesbian couples – can claim full litigation rights even if there is no marriage license between them.

“We use marriage as a marker of commitment but if real-life commitments – not just those symbolized by a marriage certificate – are protected, we’re all better off,” said Ann Freedman, a Rutgers Law School professor.

The justices’ decision clarified and expanded state law by ruling that an unmarried person has the right to sue for emotional distress when he or she is involved in “an intimate familial relationship that is stable, enduring, substantial and mutually supportive.”

Previously, the right to sue for emotional distress was reserved for people related by marriage or blood. The ruling enables unmarried couples who have established and “intimate familial” relationship to claim damages. The existence of such a relationship would be assessed case by case.

But he said he found it ironic that the Supreme Court expanded the law at a time when the state legislature is trying to impose limits on negligence or tort lawsuits.

Freedman called the ruling “consistent with new Jersey’s progressive attitude” toward unmarried and same-sex couples, and predicted further changes recognizing that in today’s society people have differing ideas of what constitutes a family.

Attorney E. Drew Britcher, who filed a friend of the court brief on behalf of the successful plaintiff in the case, said he doubted the ruling would result in a flood of complaints from people claiming to have had intimate relationships with partners hurt or killed in accidents. Plaintiffs would still have to prove to juries that their relationship with the deceased or hurt was well established and intimate.

Other attorneys agreed expansion of the law was unlikely to be abused. But one lawyer, who asked not to be named, expressed concern over the issue of what constitutes an “intimate familial” relationship. One couple may feel such closeness and intend to marry after a few months; others wait years before declaring vows, he said.

Britcher called the former law ironic in that it permitted a person on the verge of divorce to file an emotional distress claim if their soon-to-be-ex-spouse was involved in an accident, yet could bar a couple days away from their wedding when an accident occurred.

“This is a very logical ruling,” Britcher said. “It simply says you can have love, compassion and reliance without necessarily getting a marriage license.”

Thursday’s ruling came in a case involving Dunphy and her live-in fiancé, Michael T. Burwell. The pair were engaged in April 1988 and planned to marry in February 1992, but Burwell died of injures from an accident Dunphy witnessed in Mount Arlington on Sept. 29, 1990. The couple was helping a friend change a tire on Route 80 when Burwell was struck by motorist James L. Gregor and dragged 240 feet.

Dunphy’s lawsuit was dismissed by a Superior Court judge in Morristown who ruled she didn’t have a claim because she wasn’t married or related to Burwell, although she and her fiancé shared a home and had a joint checking account and life insurance policies making each other the beneficiary. The Appellate Division reversed the trial court and the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.