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10/06/97 RODGER LINDH v. JANIS SURMAN

October 6, 1997

RODGER LINDH
v.
JANIS SURMAN, APPELLANT



Appeal from the Order of the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County, Civil Division, No. AR 0318394, March 11, 1996.

Before: Ford Elliott, Schiller, And Brosky, JJ. Opinion BY Ford Elliott, J. Schiller, J. filed a Dissenting Opinion.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Elliott

OPINION BY FORD ELLIOTT, J.:

FILED October 6, 1997

This appeal requires resolution of the novel question whether the law of Pennsylvania should permit retention of an engagement ring or its value by the donee, after the donor of the ring breaks their engagement. The facts follow.

Appellee Rodger Lindh (Rodger) asked appellant Janis Surman (Janis) to marry him on August 24, 1993. Janis accepted his proposal and Rodger gave Janis a diamond engagement ring worth approximately $21,000. Unfortunately, Rodger experienced misgivings about the impending marriage and requested the ring's return in October of 1993. Janis returned the ring. However, Janis and Rodger subsequently reconciled, and once again planned to marry. Rodger again gave the diamond ring to Janis and Janis wore it. Janis began to make wedding plans.

On March 20, 1994, Rodger unexpectedly informed Janis that he no longer loved her and broke their engagement. Janis questioned Rodger, but he was unable or unwilling to explain or to seek counseling regarding his decision. Rodger requested that Janis return the ring, but Janis refused. Litigation ensued. Rodger filed a civil action to recover the ring or its value, which was submitted to arbitration. On September 16, 1994, a panel of arbitrators entered an award in Janis' favor.

Upon Rodger's appeal, the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County reversed the decision of the arbitrators. *fn1 The trial court found no case directly on point and concluded that the issue was one of first impression in Pennsylvania.

The court discovered, however, that other states had addressed the issue, and although the majority of states followed the so-called fault rule, an increasing number of jurisdictions were adopting a no-fault rule. The no-fault jurisdictions hold that absent an agreement to the contrary, the ring is returned to the donor regardless of the circumstances surrounding the engagement's termination. The trial court ruled that the no-fault engagement rule should be followed in Pennsylvania as well.

The trial court's opinion cites with approval a New Jersey case which rejected the majority "fault" rule based upon public policy concerns for the status of women in modern society. Aronow v. Silver, 223 N.J. Super. 344, 348, 538 A.2d 851, 853 (1987). The trial court excerpted the following:

the fault rule is sexist and archaic, a too-long enduring reminder of the times when even the law discriminated against women. . . . In ancient Rome the rule was fault. When the woman broke the engagement, however, she was required not only to return the ring, but also its value, as a penalty. No penalty attached when the breach was the man's. In England, women were oppressed by the rigidly stratified social order of the day. They worked as servants or, if not of the servant class, were dependent on their relatives. The fact that men were in short supply, marriage above one's station rare[,] and travel difficult abbreviated betrothal prospects for women. Marriages were arranged. Women's lifetime choices were limited to a marriage or a nunnery. Spinsterhood was a centuries-long personal tragedy. Men, because it was a man's world, were much more likely than women to break engagements. When one did, he left behind a woman of tainted reputation and ruined prospects. The law, in a de minimus gesture, gave her the engagement ring, as a consolation prize. When the man was jilted, a seldom thing, Justice required the ring's return to him. Thus, the rule of life was the rule of law -- both saw women as inferiors.

Aronow, supra, 223 N.J. Super. at 348, 538 A.2d at 853 (1987); trial court opinion, 7/12/96 at 3-4.

Adhering to the public policy rationale of Aronow, the trial court entered judgment in Rodger's favor in the amount of $21,200. Janis filed post-trial motions seeking reversal of the judgment which were denied on March 11, 1996. This appeal followed.

Although we acknowledge the analysis set forth by the New Jersey court regarding the social history of women, we do not believe that such analysis is useful in an engagement ring case governed by Pennsylvania law. Unlike some jurisdictions, Pennsylvania cases have long observed the law of conditional gifts regarding engagement ring disputes. Therefore, resort to public ...


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