Internet Dating Services and Legal Liability

In these days, many people spend time on their electronic devices to become members of internet dating services. Many companies are now providing online dating services to their members. In general, the online dating services require their members to submit a profile, which may include personal information (e.g., name, email address, date-of-birth, and photos). As a result, the internet dating service may be sued by its members or third parties for various legal claims.

What Are the Typical Legal Claims Against Internet Dating Services?

In recent years, the internet dating services have been targets of lawsuits.  In some cases, the internet dating service may facilitate sexual encounters between its members, which can lead to its member being arrested for having sex with a minor.  In other cases, the members defame, harass, stalk, or bully each other.  In these cases, the courts have enforced or dismissed the civil claims against the internet dating service for various reasons.  The typical claims against the internet dating service may be for breach of contract, negligence, deceptive trade practice, Lanham Act violation, failure to warn, invasion of privacy, defamation, or fraud.  It is important to note that each of the aforesaid claims requires specific elements and supporting evidence to pass muster in court.  See The Perils and Pitfalls of Online Dating for more information.

In breach of contract cases, an agreement is formed when the member checks a box indicating that he/she is over 18 and has read and agreed to the website’s terms and conditions and privacy policy. These terms and conditions usually mention that the service cannot guarantee and assume responsibility for verifying the accuracy of the information provided by users. So, the online dating service does not promise to prevent minors from registering or to monitor members’ profiles for accuracy. In order to hold the online dating service liable for breach of contract, the plaintiff must allege that it has breached a promise that was actually part of the contract. In another case, an unknown person posted a personal profile of an actress without her knowledge, consent, or permission. The actress filed a lawsuit against the online dating service for invasion of privacy, misappropriation of the right of publicity, defamation, and negligence. The court ruled in favor of the online dating service after determining that it had not failed to enforce its own policies prohibiting publication of street addresses, e-mail addresses, and offensive/sexually-suggestive language.

In failure to warn cases, a valid claim requires a duty to warn, a breach of that duty, and injury proximately resulting from the breach. If the danger is open and obvious, there is no duty to warn and the risk is obvious when the danger is known by the consumer. Also, it may be sufficient to mention on the website that the online dating service cannot verify its members’ information.

What Are the Other Potential Issues?

In other cases, violations can rise to the level of cyberharassment, cyberstalking or cyberbullying.  In fact, cyberbullying has many manifestations, including, but not limited to, Instant Messenger, websites, e-mail, or text messages. Unfortunately, law enforcement agencies lack the technology or resources to focus on internet-based harassment, stalking or bullying. In some cases, advocates have argued that online dating services should run background checks on their members. However, even that precaution may invite liability towards them.

At our law firm, we assist clients in matters related to online dating services and legal liabilities. You may contact us in order to setup a free consultation.