Dominique Buttitta wanted to get married in style, so she spared no expense on her upcoming nuptials: $30,000 to reserve a banquet hall outside Chicago; $11,000 for flowers and spot lighting; $10,000 for an orchestra; $5,000 on her wedding dress and veil.
As Buttitta excitedly continued preparations, the costs kept mounting. Then, four days before the big day, her fiance called the Oct. 2 wedding off.
With such short notice, she could not recover most the money she had spent — so the 32-year-old lawyer is suing. In a civil suit filed a few weeks ago in Illinois, she accuses Vito Salerno, 31, of “breach of promise to marry” and intentional infliction of emotional distress. She’s seeking more than $95,000 in damages, plus the costs of filing the suit.
How are Buttitta’s chances in court? Not bad at all, according to attorney, feminist and activist Gloria Allred. “Many states would permit her to recoup her out-of-pocket costs for the wedding preparations,” Allred said, citing the legal theory of “detrimental reliance.”
“She relied on their joint decision regarding the marriage ceremony and party, and spent her own funds on her reliance on his representation,” Allred explained. “If he backs out, he should pay her back.”
Neither Buttitta nor Salerno granted interviews to TODAYshow.com. One of Buttitta’s three attorneys wrote in an e-mail that Buttitta is “suffering from the flu and has consequently lost her voice. Upon her recovery, we anticipate responding.”
Salerno’s lawyer, Vincent Stark, has instructed his client not to speak to reporters, but described the lawsuit’s claims as “false allegations.” He also said the damages the suit seeks for infliction of emotional distress are “not recoverable” under Illinois law.
Stark said he filed a request with the court last week asking the case be ruled by a jury rather than a judge, should it go to trial. “I’m always optimistic to settle the case before it goes to trial,” he said.
Left at the altar
Lawsuits resulting from aborted engagements are not uncommon, but most simply involve ownership of the ring and are decided in magistrate or small-claims court. Courts generally rule the would-be groom gets the ring back only if the bride breaks off the engagement.
One of the most well-known cases involved an especially expensive ring. In 2006, a New York State Supreme Court judge ruled that Dana Clyburn Parker could keep the $40,000, 3.4-carat engagement ring she was given by her fiance, Brian Callahan, even though Parker called off the wedding. The judge ruled in Parker’s favor because Callahan was legally married to someone else when he proposed to Parker.
Canceled weddings sometimes result in legal action, but not always. Some examples:
- In 2003, Marilyn Chivetta of St. Louis found herself in a situation similar to Buttitta’s when her fiance called off their wedding days before it was about to take place. She had spent about $70,000 to secure a Ritz-Carlton ballroom and hire entertainers and even a horse-drawn carriage to whisk the bride and groom away after the reception. Since guests were already in town, Chivetta decided to host a party at the reception venue, calling it the Broken Heart Ball.
- Former Atlanta news anchor Kimberley Kennedy was less than a day from getting married about 12 years ago when her fiance told her at the rehearsal dinner that he could not go through with it. Her image as a jilted bride actually boosted her profile; soon she was host of a syndicated news and entertainment show. She also parlayed her heartbreak into a book called “Left at the Altar.”
- One of the most famous cases of a jilted-bride lawsuit is that of Rosemary Shell, a Georgia woman who sued Wayne Gibbs for breach of promise after he broke off the engagement days before the wedding by leaving her a note in the bathroom. In 2008, a jury awarded Shell $150,000. The award did not cover wedding-related expenses like those in Buttitta’s lawsuit, but compensated Shell for giving up a high-paying job in another city to marry Gibbs. Shell kept her engagement ring (which she later sold) and is now happily married to someone else, said Lydia Sartain, her attorney.
Sartain said the publicity from Shell’s case attracted others to reach out to her for legal advice: “I received 15 to 20 e-mails and phone calls from people all over the country, mostly women, occasionally a man, who have some really heart-wrenching stories where they quit their job or sold their house or did something really significant in contemplation of this marriage that for various reasons fell through.”
Sartain thinks Buttitta has a strong case. “It sounds like he could have mitigated her damages [had he acted sooner]. Now he needs to step up and help her pay.”
Because tradition still generally holds that brides or their families bear most of the cost of a wedding, women are more financially vulnerable than men when an expensive wedding is planned, Allred said. Internet searches for “jilted bride” generally turn up two to three times as many results as “jilted groom.”
“People have a right not to go ahead with a marriage,” Allred said. “But they don’t have a right to put the cost of their decision on the innocent spouse-to-be.”
A messy split
Buttitta’s lawsuit itemizes dozens of expenses related to the wedding, all of them nonrefundable: a wedding planner, shower, cake, gifts for the wedding party, calligraphy, a videographer, handmade menus and more.
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According to Buttitta’s lawsuit, she and Salerno began dating in 2004 and got engaged in 2007. The suit claims that Salerno began telling friends the wedding was off long before he admitted it to Buttitta. It also accuses him of “deliberately and maliciously reassuring the plaintiff that he loved her and that she could trust him until the day before the cancellation of the wedding” and maintains that Buttitta will incur ongoing medical and psychological costs as a result of her anxiety, depression and humiliation.
The lawsuit also details a September bachelor party that included a visit to a strip club called the Pink Monkey: “At the Pink Monkey defendant engaged in flirtatious and amorous acts in public, including but not limited to, receiving lap dances and other physical contact from adult female strippers. ... Defendant’s whereabouts the early morning hours until the afternoon of the day following the bachelor party are unknown.”
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