High Court Takes Look at Sex Law `Conversation' Suits Archaic, Lawyer Says

Article excerpt

Is a man's wife his property? And can he sue for damages if someone deprives him of sole use of that property by having sex with his wife?

The Missouri Supreme Court will consider that Wednesday when it hears the case of a lawyer who won $50,000 from a doctor in St. Louis County. The lawyer said the doctor had taken liberties with a patient - the lawyer's wife.

The lawyer sued for $1 million under an old law holding that a man has exclusive rights to the body of his wife.

The offense is called "criminal conversation." It evolved as case law from the old English common law; the allegation usually arises in alienation-of-affection cases and sometimes in divorce cases.

Legal experts are watching this case to see if Missouri will join 30-plus states that have done away with criminal conversation suits.

The doctor's side argues that criminal conversation suits are archaic. The lawyer's side calls them a valuable way of protecting the institution of marriage.

The plaintiff is James L. Thomas, 45, a lawyer in St. Robert, in south-central Missouri near Fort Leonard Wood. Thomas sued Dr. Jawed H. Siddiqui, 48.

In December, a jury in Hillsboro threw out Thomas' alienation-of-affection claim. But it ruled in his favor on the criminal conversation charge because Siddiqui and Thomas' wife, Tammy Thomas, 34, had had sex.

The jury allowed only $1 in actual damages but granted $50,000 in punitive damages. Thomas called the award the jury's way of punishing Siddiqui for abusing the doctor-patient relationship.

But Circuit Judge John L. Anderson of Jefferson County threw out the damage award. He wrote an order suggesting that the Supreme Court outlaw criminal conversation lawsuits on the grounds that:

A woman is no longer considered the property of her husband.

Such suits don't protect shaky marriages.

They may be brought for vindictive reasons.

They offer the potential for such abuses as extortion or blackmail.

The allegation can't be defended against, even if the wife had consented to the sex or had said she was single.

Determining damages is difficult.

The Supreme Court took the case even before it was heard by the appellate court. After the oral arguments, the court could throw out the law or modify it.

Anderson noted that although Tammy Thomas hadn't been a party to the suit, she had been forced to take the witness stand and be "subject to the trial equivalent of a legal stoning."

Last December's trial was something of a soap opera, as courthouse personnel popped in and out to watch. Tammy Thomas complained that she had to endure a grilling while Siddiqui sat out the trial in his native Pakistan.

The only issue in a case of criminal conversation is whether sex took place. Both Tammy Thomas and Siddiqui admitted that it had, although they disputed who had pursued whom.

James Thomas had hired a private investigator. …