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Seeking new marital tort, frustrated father takes divorce case to civil court.

A divorce-related lawsuit filed in New Jersey is trying to establish precedent in that state for a new marital tort: alienation of children's affection. The case involves Canadian billionaire Moses Segal, who says he suffered compensable harm because his former common law wife destroyed his relationship with his children. And he wants a civil court, not a family court, to hear his case.

"This is really uncharted territory," said David Beaver, a family lawyer in Princeton, New Jersey. "We've never seen this kind of claim brought to a civil court."

In 1994, Segal began living with Cynthia Lynch, first in the Bahamas and then in Canada. They separated in 2001. In 2005, the Toronto Globe and Mail described their divorce saga as "a tale of financial scheming, intrigue, and avarice worthy of a Hollywood film."

The Ontario court awarded Lynch around $10 million (U.S.). In 2006, she moved to New Jersey with the couple's two children, ages 13 and 9.

Segal's suit claims that he had to hire a private investigator to track down his former family and that Lynch attempted to change her and the children's legal name from Segal to Lynch, changed her phone number, blocked Segal's e-mails, and took other steps to cut off his contact with the children. Segal sued Lynch for negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress and asked for economic and punitive damages. (Segal v. Lynch, No. L-003076-07 (N.J., Morris Co. Super. filed Oct. 25, 2007).)

"Alienation of affection" was once a standard allegation filed against a spouse's extramarital partner, although most jurisdictions, including New Jersey, have dropped it for that context.

In the 1980s, psychologist Richard Gardner coined the term "parental alienation syndrome" to describe the emotional damage suffered by children who repeatedly hear one parent disparage another or falsely accuse the other parent of child abuse. Sometimes called "child alienation syndrome," it makes a frequent appearance in custody cases. The term is controversial--some mental health professionals have said calling these effects on children a "syndrome" is scientifically unsound--but divorce lawyers say it is all too common.

"It does exist," said Beaver. "It's a documented doctrine. And if it is brought up and there is sufficient evidence, it is an important part of how a judge determines a custody case. It can cause tremendous damage to children, and the whole point of family court is to safeguard the children's needs."

Beaver said such cases are the proper province of family court and estimated that "maybe 1 in 10" cases would qualify as so extreme that they could not be remedied there.

However, "there certainly are some extreme cases where a civil remedy may be the only option. In those cases, people absolutely should have the right to bring a lawsuit," he said.

Segal said he is pursuing a civil remedy because he is frustrated after 14 years of fighting the case in family court.

Beaver noted that the case is being closely watched by New Jersey divorce lawyers. "It would certainly be a big jump--from family court to civil court," he said. "The question is, do we want to make that jump? I hope this is something that judges are going to have a serious conversation about."
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Title Annotation:news & trends
Author:Sileo, Carmel
Date:Jan 1, 2008
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