Unhappy Valentine: Wedding’s Off, Pa. Law Says Ring to be Returned

February 15, 2006

If the wedding is off, the engagement ring must be returned, state law says, but a broken engagement and ensuing legal battle over a $35,000 ring may change that.

Mario Mele, a former Montgomery County commissioner who owns a dental insurance agency, met Janet Grace, of Philadelphia, a construction manager, in December 2004. Last spring, he gave her a 2 1/2-carat princess cut diamond set in hand-crafted platinum.

Less than two months later, he asked for it back.

Grace, who had designed the ring, refused, sold the diamond, and replaced it in the setting with a cubic zirconia.

Mele sued her, seeking the $35,000 appraised value of the ring plus $100,000 in damages, saying he was subjected to humiliation, anxiety “and other personal injuries.”

The state Supreme Court ruled in 1999 that an engagement ring was a conditional gift. “The woman must return it if the marriage does not occur, even if the donor broke the engagement,” Justice Sandra Schultz Newman wrote.

Justice Ralph J. Cappy said in a dissent that was contrary to centuries of tradition that said whoever breaks a pledge of marriage should be the one to give up the ring.

Grace said Mele had asked that her ring be the only diamond ring she would own, so she had given five rings to charity and one to a niece, about $20,000 worth of jewelry in all.

“My ring was not a gift. I had to give up something to receive it,” Grace said. “If I had not given up anything, I would have been happy to give it back.”

Mele’s lawsuit argues that Grace disregarded his rights out of “personal spite and greed.”

State Sen. Joe Conti, R-Bucks, got wind of the dispute, and his office is drafting legislation that could be introduced as soon as next month.

Possible options include requiring jewelers to post notices about the law, and publishing consumer protection pamphlets, said Vicki Wilken, Conti’s legislative counsel.

“It’s not widely known,” Wilken said. “I didn’t know it, and we want to educate people so they don’t end up in the same situation as Janet.”


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