Social networking app Grindr is battling a suit in New Jersey federal court brought by a man who alleges the site’s lax age restrictions led him to have a liaison with an underage boy, for which he now faces criminal charges.
In his suit, William Saponaro Jr., of Cape May, N.J., says he was invited on June 21, 2012, to have sex with two other males who had met over Grindr, a mobile phone app geared toward gay men.
A week later, according to the suit, Saponaro learned that one of them was only 13 years old. He was arrested and charged with sexual assault and endangering the welfare of a child, and faces up to 20 years in prison.
Saponaro filed suit against Grindr in Cape May County Superior Court on June 19 and, on July 17, lawyers for the Los Angeles company removed the case to Camden, N.J., federal court. On Aug. 8, Grindr moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.
According to the suit, the 13-year-old was allowed to become a paying member of Grindr even though the site restricts access for persons under age 18, or 21 in places where 18 is not the age of majority. Saponaro claims in the suit that the other adult who took part in the liaison told him he met the third participant on Grindr. Instead of verifying the minor’s age himself, Saponaro said, he relied on the other adult’s representation and the fact that the third participant had a Grindr account to ensure he was over 18.
Saponaro’s suit alleges Grindr was negligent for failing to ensure that its members are over the age of majority and for failing to properly train its employees, agents and representatives. The suit claims the company’s negligence was the proximate cause of Saponaro’s arrest.
Saponaro has also brought a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress. Saponaro claims in the suit that he “reasonably believed [the minor] was 18 years or older.”
Saponaro is the owner of a construction business but has been unable to attend to his usual duties since his arrest, which has caused him substantial financial loss, the suit claims. He is seeking damages and litigation costs.
Grindr said in its motion to dismiss that the Communications Decency Act, 47 U.S.C.A. 230, immunizes providers of interactive computer services against liability for information provided by other parties. The act holds that such providers shall not be held liable for any action taken voluntarily and in good faith to restrict access to obscene or otherwise objectionable material. Grindr’s motion also said Saponaro seeks to hold it liable as the publisher of information provided by the minor, and that is prohibited by the act.
The company said its terms of service caution that it has no control over information provided by its users. The company’s motion said there is no proximate cause between its alleged failure to detect an underage user and the plaintiff’s criminal prosecution. Grindr also said the plaintiff’s claim of negligent infliction of emotional distress fails because Saponaro does not allege that he is a member of the service and therefore the company has no duty of care toward him.
Grindr also cited the 2011 ruling of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in American Civil Liberties Union v. Mukasey, which held that requiring Web publishers to verify the age of users was not feasible.
Saponaro’s lawyer, Wenonah, N.J.-based solo J. Michael Farrell, was on vacation and could not be reached for comment about the case. The lawyer for Grindr, Frederick Polak of Post, Polak, Goodsell, MacNeill & Strauchler in Roseland, N.J., did not return a call.
According to judiciary spokeswoman Tammy Kendig, Saponaro was charged with committing criminal sexual contact in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:14-2C. His case is still open.
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