Ninth Circuit Takes New Look at Duty to Warn in Match Gone Bad

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – It has been seven years since Mary Kay Beckman was brutally stabbed and left for dead by a man she met on Match.com, and the courts still have not decided whether the dating website had a duty to warn her it had paired her with a violent maniac.

On Thursday, three Ninth Circuit judges grappled with the question at a second hearing in her $10 million negligence case against Match, filed in Nevada in 2013.

Beckman signed up on Match in August 2010 and was matched with Wade Ridley. Match suggested she “wink” at him, the website’s way of encouraging people to connect. They had their first date on Sept. 26, 2010.

They dated for 10 days. When Beckman called it off, she says, Ridley sent her numerous threatening and harassing messages.

On the night of Jan. 21, 2011, Ridley hid in Beckman’s garage and stabbed her 10 times until his knife broke, after which he stomped and kicked her in the head. He left her for dead.

But Beckman survived and required several surgeries to repair her jaw, remove part of her skull, and preserve her eyesight and hearing.

Ridley meanwhile was convicted of killing an ex-girlfriend in Phoenix. Sentenced to decades behind bars, he died in prison a year before Beckman sued Match.

Ridley’s lengthy criminal history included arrests in 1992 after he tried to commit suicide by police officer, in 1999 for domestic violence, and in 2001 for battery.

In 2016, the Ninth Circuit remanded Beckman’s duty to warn claim to a lower court, saying she should have a chance to prove that Match.com knew Ridley had been paired with and attacked other women using its platform.

The lower court dismissed the claim in 2017, finding Match doesn’t owe a duty to “control the dangerous conduct of another or to warn others of the dangerous conduct, except where a special relationship exists and the harm is created by foreseeable conduct.”

On Thursday, the judges struggled to find specificity in Beckman’s amended complaint that would prove a special relationship existed and that Match had foreseeable knowledge that Ridley was violent.

“You promised at the last panel hearing that you could allege Match had actual knowledge,” U.S. Circuit Judge Mary Murguia told Beckman’s lawyer. “You don’t allege specific facts about it.”

Beckman’s lawyer Marc Saggese replied: “It’s my recollection that we alleged specifically that Match knew and continued to match unsuspecting subscribers and failed to warn of the dangerous propensities of Wade Ridley when they knew in advance that he was in fact dangerous.”

In Beckman’s amended complaint, she claims Match “received complaints that subscriber(s) commonly known as Wade Ridley, Wade Williams or others, harassed, threatened, and/or violently attacked other women utilizing Match’s services. Despite these complaints, Match allowed Wade Ridley’s, Wade Williams’ and/or other profile names to remain active.”

Sitting on the panel by designation, U.S. District Judge Robert Chatigny of Connecticut asked Saggese if he could be more specific with another shot at amending the complaint. Saggese said yes.

“That’s what you said the last time,” said U.S. Circuit Judge Wallace Tashima, sounding frustrated.

Saggese said he had spoken with the ex-husband of another woman who had been killed by Ridley after being paired on Match, and she had “told anyone and everyone who would listen” about Ridley, including the police. With some discovery, Saggese said he could prove Match had actual knowledge of Ridley’s violent tendencies towards women.

None of this matters, said Match attorney Michael Cheah, because the company doesn’t have duty to warn under Nevada law because no special relationship exists.

“Match does do a lot of things to take down content and it would have had it had knowledge. There’s a lot of things that Match does do that it doesn’t have a legal obligation to do. Our position, though, is that under Nevada law, from what we have here is there’s no information that would be useful to convey to anyone. This is a vague supposition of prior harm.”

Tashima asked if Match could warn users about unverified reports of dangerous conduct. Cheah said that would be a privacy violation, and could open the door to all kinds of false reports and smear campaigns against other users.

As for verified information like past criminal convictions, Cheah said: “I would think that would be helpful information but I think we’re looking through the wrong lens. There has to be special relationship before there is a duty to disclose. The duty here is solely based on the asymmetry of information and that’s not enough.  If that’s true then every plaintiff in a duty to warn case wins. There is no limiting principle to duty to warn.”

Cheah and Judge Chatigny spent quite a bit of time on what role Match played in the attack.

“I would like to know why the defendant’s own act in pairing the plaintiff with Mr. Ridley did not provide a basis for a duty to warn when they learned that Mr. Ridley was a killer,” Chatigny asked.

“It doesn’t create a special duty in and of itself,” Cheah said. “Match is in the business of showing people other daters that are compatible with them based on the characteristics that they and the other person have provided. There’s no human being at Match looking at profiles. You’re only seeing a reflection of what you’ve asked to see.”

He added, “To impose a duty to warn in that circumstance really opens up Match to a plethora of liability and a duty to investigate, a duty to look into things over which it really has no control. This could create a cost-free way to harm people online.”

On rebuttal, Saggese said it wouldn’t take much for Match to issue a standard warning about complaints against certain users in a way that would protect privacy.

“An individual warning to the email, perhaps automatically generated, that could put this person on notice and use give these individuals an opportunity to protect themselves,” Saggese suggested. “Match is in control of the information. Match is in a superior position to help other people make good conscious decisions and they are choosing to not do that.”

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