HOUSTON — From the start, this was no run-of-the-mill marriage. At the reception which followed her 1985 wedding to multimillionaire oilman Jerry E. Chiles, Patti Sue Sullivan Chiles--under duress, she now says--signed a prenuptial property agreement, a backup contract to one she had signed only two weeks earlier.
Now the couple's divorce settlement is making U.S. legal history. In December, a Texas family court jury awarded Patti Chiles $500,000 for "severe emotional distress" inflicted over the stormy course of the 22-month marriage, marking the first time in a divorce case a husband or wife has been awarded civil damages for infliction of nonphysical injuries.
It was a trial described by Jerry Chiles' attorney, John F. Nichols, as "Barnum and Bailey and dancing bears," a spectacle during which Chiles was accused of "terrorizing" his wife during his drunken rages, possibly exposing her to AIDS by indulging in sexual liaisons with prostitutes and, ultimately, causing her to seek psychiatric help for post-traumatic stress syndrome.
Now the case, which is under appeal, has become a focus of debate among those who practice matrimonial law. Some see it as the first skirmish in a legal revolution, the cutting-edge issue in divorce law, the most provocative idea since palimony.
Others see only trouble ahead: Will it bring back the concept of fault after two decades of no-fault divorce? Will a rash of these interspousal torts further clog the nation's courts? Will lawyers be leaving themselves open to malpractice suits if they do not advise divorcing clients that such a tort may be viable? What about the statute of limitations?
The initial surge of me-too cases has already been filed, says Patti Chiles' attorney, Earle Lilly, a man who sees himself as a courtroom "gladiator" and is unashamedly basking in the glow of his accomplishment, loving the national media attention, content that, at 50, he has received long overdue recognition from his peers.
But despite "an incredible amount of inquiry calls," Lilly doesn't anticipate a nationwide epidemic of emotional-abuse claims in divorce cases: "There aren't that many spouses out there with $48 million. People could ruin one another financially doing this."
Hot Topic at Conference
The effect of the decision was a major discussion topic at a March seminar of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers on Maui. Harry Fain, a Beverly Hills attorney who was active in abolishing the concept of fault in California divorce and is a past president of the academy, listened to the debate and said later in an interview:
"Before we jump into a ready-made opening, we ought to be very, very careful." Expressing his concern about the continuing erosion of the institution of marriage, he wondered if these interspousal torts may "create more problems with getting people to even consider marriage."
Patti Sue Sullivan was 35 and had been employed as a $36,000-a-year printing company representative when she married Chiles. He was 41, son of Eddie Chiles, owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team, and in his own right president of Houston Offshore International, an offshore drilling company. By his estimate, he was worth $48 million at the time. It was a first marriage for each.
"For the first six weeks it was absolutely wonderful," she says of the marriage.
"I thought it was all right for maybe the first six months," he says.
But they are in agreement on one thing: Ultimately, it turned into a nightmare.
In a recent interview in attorney Nichols' office in Houston, Jerry Chiles said he had always shied away from marriage, partly because of his preoccupation with business--in the "good days" of oil in the mid-1970s, he estimates, his net worth soared to about $200 million--and partly because he feared that every woman he met was after those millions.
Patti Sullivan, he says, seemed different. During the five years they knew one another before marrying, he recalls, "She always told me, 'Look, Jerry, I don't want any of your money.' She always said that, over and over and over again." He believed her, he says, although he began to get "real nervous" during discussions about a prenuptial agreement.
The main purpose of the prenuptial agreement, Jerry Chiles says, "was to protect my separate property and the income from my separate property. Under Texas law, without a prenuptial agreement, the income, which was substantial, would have become community property."
That agreement stipulated that Patti Chiles was to have half interest in the townhouse where they lived, which was his separate property; insurance on his life in the amount of $427,000, coverage under his medical insurance plan and, in the event of his death, about 75% of his estate. By its terms, these were in lieu of community property.
The contract she signed at the wedding reception was a reaffirmation contract or, as Lilly puts it, "the nail in the coffin." Still, Patti Chiles signed it because "I loved and trusted Jerry Chiles."