Thoughts on the Match.com suit

You may have read about the woman who filed a lawsuit against Match.com after a man she met through the site attacked and nearly killed her. According to the AP, her suit is seeking 10 million dollars. You may have also read Match.com‘s statement, which is reproduced below:

“What happened to Mary Kay Beckman is horrible but this lawsuit is absurd. The many millions of people who have found love on Match.com and other online dating sites know how fulfilling it is. And while that doesn’t make what happened in this case any less awful, this is about a sick, twisted individual with no prior criminal record, not an entire community of men and women looking to meet each other.”

It is impossible to know at this point whether the suit has any merit. Match.com‘s terms of use may enable it to escape liability in this case, because prospective members are warned that members are not subject to background checks. Nevertheless, the woman’s understanding of Match.com‘s membership process–from not only their official terms but also from their constant advertisements–will be significant. Stay tuned.

What struck me most about this story, however, was not the incident or the suit itself. Rather, it was Match.com’s response. Grammatically and strategically speaking, it is a disaster. I find it difficult to believe that this was the final draft of the company’s official position.

“Horrible”? ”Sick” and “twisted”? Who wrote this? Some kid on Twitter? A facebook troll? The word “horrible” does not belong in this statement. Massacres are horrible; they evoke horror, which is the root of the word. Crimes such as the one giving rise to the lawsuit are terrible. As for “sick and twisted”, that is a phrase which needs to be eliminated from our shared lexicon. Although it rhymes (in the assonant sense) and is therefore pleasing to the ear, its overuse has rendered it ineffective as a descriptor. ”Sick and twisted” is right up there with “going ballistic” in terms of imagery, or more accurately the lack of it.

Worse yet, the compassion attempted by this misfire is very obviously feigned. How do we know? Because the author qualifies his comments. In the first sentence, he uses the word “but.” This is a word to be avoided when trying to convey any sort of camaraderie or understanding. In the third sentence, he pays lip service to the “awful” incident (another poor word choice) and then moves quickly past it, rudely excluding the man who Match.com introduced to Ms. Beckman from the millions of people “looking to meet each other.” Like a forced apology, qualified sympathy comes off as hollow and insincere, and in this instance it comes off as dismissive as well.

There are a few more issues with Match.com‘s statement. But I will spare you the word nerd stuff in favor of some strategic questions. First, what the hell was Match.com thinking? This is a defendant facing a lawsuit! Why issue a statement at all, let alone a really bad one? Match.com‘s potential jurors are out there, and they are going to read it. Its customers and potential customers are out there too. Why provide these people with any additional imagery, hackneyed or not? Why give them the opportunity to misinterpret the message? Doing so is not beneficial either to the defense of the suit, or Match.com‘s business.

But what is really incredible, from a plaintiff’s lawyer’s perspective, is that Match.com describes the assailant–a Match.com member–as having “no prior criminal record.” When did Match.com discover this information? If it was before the attack, then Match.com clearly performs some type of background checks on its members. This would contradict its terms of service, and undermine what will no doubt be the main defense in this case. If it was after the attack, then Match clearly has the ability to perform background checks and the question why it failed to perform one in this instance arises.

Those are issues for Ms. Beckman’s case, and Match.com will pay a team of defense lawyers to work through them. Match will kick itself when it realizes that that expense is largely a self-inflicted one. Unfortunately for Match, however, the cost of its official response will not end there. Because stating that the assailant in Ms. Beckman’s case “had no prior criminal record” could form the basis for the belief by future members that Match does, in fact, perform background checks. If a future member joins under that mistaken belief, and Match fails to do anything to correct that belief beyond referring to its terms of service, and a similar incident occurs, then Match.com could find itself in a worse position than it is now.

At the end of the day, nothing about Match.com‘s official response makes sense to me. There are no apparent pros, but plenty of obvious cons. Fraught with potential problems, Match.com‘s response seems about as logical as online dating in the first place.