The case of the millionaire Mississippi businessman slapped with a judgment of more than $750,000 for allegedly charming another man’s wife away from him has become a federal case, to say the least.
The lawyer who is appealing the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court says it’s not really about a woman named Sandra Day who married and left a plumber named Johnny Valentine, but about an archaic “alienation of affection” statute that has no place in modern society.
Because she left her husband for her boss — Jerry Fitch — whom she eventually married, Mississippi courts have ruled that Day's ex-husband is entitled to $642,000 in compensatory damages and $112,500 in punitive damages.
“I don’t feel like we should have to pay,” Jerry Fitch told TODAY’s Natalie Morales on Monday. “No, ma’am, I sure don’t.”
“It certainly is something that in today’s society has no place,” the Fitches’ attorney, Shelby Duke Goza, added. “Sandra was trapped in a dead marriage, had no way to escape, low income ability. She just can’t leave, and there are thousands of women who are no different than that and when they find some other outlet, there’s a penalty there. That’s not right.”
Mississippi is one of just seven states — Utah, New Mexico, South Dakota, Illinois, Mississippi, North Carolina and Hawaii are the others — that still have an alienation of affection law on the books. The concept dates back centuries to when a wife was considered her husband’s property. If another man has an affair with a married woman and captures her affections, the law gives the woman’s husband the right to monetary compensation for his loss.
The case dates back some nine years, to when Sandra Fitch, who was then married to Valentine, went to work for Jerry Fitch, who has an oil business and a real estate office in the little Mississippi town of Holly Springs. They fell in love and had an affair.
Her husband suspected, but both denied it. But when she got pregnant, a paternity test proved the child — a daughter — was fathered by Fitch.
The couple divorced in 2002 and Sandra married Jerry Fitch, who had also been married when their affair began. In 2005, Valentine sued under the alienation of affection law, blaming Fitch for the loss of his wife. But Sandra Fitch says that she had long since fallen out of love with Valentine.
“For six years, I dealt with gambling, and that was the end result of my marriage,” she told Morales. “My affection was alienated by that, not Jerry. He didn’t have anything to do with that.”
But Mississippi law was on Valentine’s side, and after a trial, Valentine won a chunk of Fitch’s fortune, which was estimated at $22 million by the Georgia Supreme Court, which turned down his appeal.
Sandra Fitch said it’s difficult living in a small town with a story that is everybody’s business. And when the state supreme court recently turned down the appeal, it became the talk of the town again.
“It’s been hard,” she admitted to Morales. “We have children, and they are affected by it, and we are. And it’s really hard because it’s unnecessary. We’re trying to keep it as low-key as we can.”
Keeping it low-key may be tough. Besides appearing on the TODAY Show, Fitch has filed an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the case.
Morales observed that Sandra and Jerry Fitch committed adultery and asked if they saw anything wrong with what they did.
“With Sandra and I?” Jerry Fitch asked. “Nothing wrong there.”