Match.com settled a lawsuit brought by a sexual assault victim by agreeing Tuesday to conduct background checks on all members to screen out known sex offenders.
Screenwriter Carole Markin proclaimed victory for the millions of singles who make use of online dating services, saying Match.com’s commitment to security screening could prevent attacks such as the one she suffered last year on a second date with Alan Paul Wurtzel of Pacific Palisades, who had at least six previous sex offense convictions.
Wurtzel, 67, pleaded no contest to sexual battery last week. He faces a year in jail and five years’ probation when he is sentenced Sept. 19.
Markin’s suit, originally filed under the name Jane Doe, trained a spotlight on the perils of computer-generated hookups in an age when, as Match.com advertises, 1 in 5 relationships begins online.
Internet matchmaking services have long had disclaimers on their websites, warning clients that they bear no liability for physical, financial or other harm that occurs during use of their services. But legal experts said it was only a matter of time before courts recognized some responsibility of the billion-dollar operations to take affordable and readily available precautions to protect their members.
Match.com doesn’t merely provide a platform for members to meet and arrange dates; it claims to be evaluating individuals and matching them for compatibility, said UC Berkeley law Professor Frank Zimring.
“What Match.com is saying is, ‘Have we got a guy for you!’ ” Zimring said. “It’s a prescriptive rather than facilitative dating service.”
The availability of information on sex offender registries could create a duty on the part of the services to take at least minimal steps to bar sexual predators, legal analysts speculate. Liability experts predict that other online dating services will be obliged to follow Match.com’s example to remain competitive.
“My sense is that as an enterprise, as a business, it’s important for them to do some type of screening” to protect their image and remain competitive with services willing to be more proactive, said John Nockleby, who teaches torts and privacy law at Loyola Law School. “This kind of screening may be very limited [in rooting out predators] but it’s not a huge expense.”
Markin, 54, said she has been a Match.com member for seven years and had pleasant experiences in the past. She conceded she might have been lulled into a false sense of security even though she continued to exercise caution.
Wurtzel had seemed charming on a first date on a Sunday afternoon over coffee. She let him pick her up at her apartment for their dinner a week later because she’d injured her foot and didn’t want to drive; he followed her to her door after dinner — a gesture she mistook as courtly — pushed her inside and forced himself on her.
“I didn’t fight him for long because I was afraid he would hurt me,” said Markin, who is 5-foot-3 and weighs less than 100 pounds. Wurtzel is at least a foot taller and weighs about 250 pounds, she said.
Markin didn’t seek monetary compensation in her lawsuit and agreed to forgo any future claims against Match.com in the settlement.
“If I save one woman from getting attacked, then I’m happy,” she said, explaining that she agreed to drop her anonymity to put a human face on the victims of Internet predators.
Robert Platt, an attorney for Match.com, said the company has no legal obligation to conduct security checks but believes the technological advancements of recent years “enables a sufficient degree of accuracy to implement this measure.”
Markin’s attorney, Mark Webb, predicted a “domino effect” among other matchmaking services. Indeed, eHarmony and Zoosk confirmed that they, too, were enhancing security for members.
“Zoosk is fully committed to implementing a sex offender screening process to help provide an additional layer of protection for our users,” said co-founder and Chief Executive Alex Mehr.
Becky Teraoka, a spokeswoman for eHarmony, said of the sex-offender registry screening: “eHarmony has been doing this for years with subscribers who reside in the United States. It has allowed us to keep many known registered sex offenders off of our service.”
Craigslist executives didn’t respond to an emailed inquiry about their policy on screening out sex offenders. The company’s website carries the disclaimer that “under no circumstances shall Craigslist be liable” for any damages sustained by users.