Loving Someone to Death: Safety, Precaution and Responsibility in Online Dating

Friday, February 1, 2013, by Teresa Cook

With Valentine’s day right around the corner, the commercials for dating websites are out in full force. They paint the picture of a whirlwind romance and true happiness, but that was far from what a women in Las Vegas experienced. In a horrific series of event, Mary Kay Beckman was stabbed 10 times and left for dead by Wade Ridley, a man she met through the online dating website match.com. Her attacker committed suicide a few weeks later when he was brought into police custody after allegedly murdering an ex-girlfriend in Arizona. Ms. Beckman has now brought a $10 million lawsuit against match.com for negligence, negligent misrepresentation, deceptive trade, failure to warn and negligent infliction of emotional distress.

The crux of Ms. Beckman allegations is that match.com “lull[s] women and men into a false sense of security” through their advertisements and doesn’t adequately warn subscribers about the risks associated with meeting people online. At first this argument may seem “absurd” as match.com spokesperson Eva Ross has described the lawsuit; do people today really need to be told that meeting up with an online stranger might be dangerous?

Ms. Beckman references the Surgeon General’s warnings on cigarette cartons as a comparable situation. Everyone nowadays knows that cigarettes are bad for your health, just as they know meeting people online can be dangerous. (The phrase “stranger, danger” comes to mind). And yet, it seems that that is not always enough to stop people from engaging in risky behavior.

The legal standard for negligence requires a finding that the defendant didn’t live up to a certain standard-of-care. To determine what that standard is, the court can look at the common practices within the industry for guidance, but it won’t necessarily be determinative. Instead, the ultimate question is what a reasonable person would have done in the defendant’s situation.

Match.com prohibits registered sex offenders and felons from subscribing to their service but they do not actively conduct background checks. However, criminal background check are not the norm in the industry. In fact, competitor eHarmony says they do not conduct background checks because the results can be unreliable and therefore “provide a false sense of security.” What match.com does do is explicitly state in their terms of use that they are not responsible for the actions of other subscribers on the site. The terms also require the subscriber to read their safety tips on how to minimize the risks when meeting a date in person. Ms. Beckman argues that these measures are not enough to ensure safety.

Spokesperson Eva Ross states that “that while [it] doesn’t make what happened in this case any less awful, this is about a sick, twisted individual with no prior criminal record, not entire community of men and women looking to meet each other.” While this situation may be an outlier, it hits close to home because it plays on our basic human emotions of love, trust and betrayal. This case illustrates how the rapid rise in technology has complete changed the social landscape and that responsibility for precaution may have fallen into new hands. Where once blind dates were set up by caring family members and friends, now online dating sites promise to find you true love from a picture and a paragraph.