A New Tortious Interference with Contractual Relations: Gender and Erotic Triangles in Lumley v. Gye
Sarah Lynnda Swan
Columbia University, Law School
August 29, 2011
Harvard Journal of Law and Gender, Vol. 35, 2012
The tort of interference with contractual relations has many puzzling features that conflict with fundamental principles of contract and tort law. This Article considers how gender influenced the structure of the tort and gave rise to many of these anomalies. Lumley v. Gye, the English case that first established interference with contractual relations, arose from a specifically gendered dispute: two men fighting over a woman. This type of male—male—female configuration creates an erotic triangle, a common archetype in Western culture. The causes of action that served as the legal precedents for interference with contractual relations – enticement, seduction, and criminal conversation – are previous instances where the law regulated gendered triangular conflicts. Enticement prohibited a rival male from taking another man’s servant, seduction prohibited a rival male from taking another man’s daughter, and criminal conversation prohibited a rival male from taking another man’s wife.
In Lumley v. Gye, the court expanded these precedents and created a cause of action that allowed Lumley to bring an action against his male rival for essentially “taking” his contracted female employee. The gendered basis for the tort explains its most problematic aspects, including why it imposes obligations on non-contractual parties, ignores the role of the breaching promisor in causing the wrong, and treats her as the property of the original promisee. In order to remedy these problematic features, the tort should be restructured as one of mixed joint liability. Further, damages should be limited to those available in contract.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 42
Date posted: August 29, 2011 ; Last revised: February 13, 2012