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Martinez v. Del Valle: 1877

Choate Cross-examines Martinez

Plaintiff: Eugenie Martinez
Defendant: Juan Del Valle
Plaintiff Claim: That Del Valle broke his promise to marry the plaintiff
Chief Defense Lawyer: Joseph H. Choate
Chief Lawyer for Plaintiff: William H. Beach
Judge: Donohue (historical records do not indicate first name)
Place: New York, New York
Date of Trial: 1877 January Term
Decision: Jury verdict in favor of the plaintiff for damages of $50

SIGNIFICANCE: The famous lawyer Joseph Choate represented Juan Del Valle, and his handling of Eugenie Martinez on the witness stand has been hailed as a model of the art of cross-examination.

Juan Del Valle was a wealthy businessman from Cuba who had established himself in New York City. He had divorced his first wife and was well into middle age when he met a dark-haired Spanish beauty in her early 20s named Eugenic Martinez. On January 14, 1875, Martinez slipped while walking on an icy sidewalk and sprained her ankle. Del Valle happened to be nearby, and he helped her up and took her home.

According to Martinez, Del Valle visited her the next day to see how she was recovering. Del Valle became her regular suitor and, after only three weeks of courtship, allegedly promised to marry Martinez but reneged after an "engagement" of several months. Martinez sued Del Valle for $50,000 in damages for breach of promise of marriage.

It was rumored that Del Valle offered Martinez $20,000 to settle out of court and avoid a scandal, but she refused. Martinez was represented by William H. Beach, and Del Valle was represented by Joseph H. Choate. With Judge Donohue presiding, the case was tried in the New York City Court's 1877 January Term. Because Del Valle was a rich man and Martinez's family was poor, the press labeled Martinez a "goiddigger" and the case attracted considerable publicity.

Choate was a famous lawyer, known for his verbal skills and scathing comments. From start to finish he stole the show. Choate encouraged the public's low opinion of Martinez when he referred to her case:

Never did a privateer upon the Spanish Main give chase to and board a homeward bound [ship] with more avidity and vigor than this family proposed to board this rich Cuban and make a capture of him.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1833 to 1882