$50 million suit facing WJFK, 2 DJs raises privacy issue

June 17, 1993|By Steve McKerrow | Steve McKerrow,Staff Writer

A $50 million lawsuit against two WJFK radio personalities raises fundamental questions about "what is proper to put on the airwaves and what is not," says the attorney who filed the suit Tuesday in Baltimore Circuit Court.

Joanne L. Suder filed the suit on behalf of Dawn Tritaik, public relations director for WWMX-FM (106.5). It charges disc jockeys Don Geronimo and Mike O'Meara of WJFK-AM/FM (1300/106.7) with invading Ms. Tritaik's privacy by "outing" her on the air as a lesbian.

The 10-count action also accuses the hosts of "The Don and Mike Show" of defamation by broadcasting in early April "a litany of outrageous and highly offensive comments and threats" about Ms. Tritaik. WJFK General Manager Ken Stevens, "Don and Mike Show" director Cerphe Colwell and station owner Infinity Broadcasting also are accused of negligence for allowing the broadcast attack on Ms. Tritaik.

"It was very personal and very bad. There was nothing funny about this," Ms. Suder said yesterday. The amount of money being sought is intended as "punitive damages for them taking their personal business to the airwaves," she said.

Mr. Stevens said yesterday that "it is company policy that we not discuss matters that are under litigation." Ms. Tritaik was out of town on vacation and could not be reached, according to her attorney.

"The Don and Mike Show" is heard in Baltimore from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays on WJFK-AM. It originates from WJFK-FM studios in Fairfax, Va.

According to a report in yesterday's Washington Post, the two DJs last November settled a $15 million lawsuit filed by a Washington public relations executive, Carol Sewell. She had alleged that they called her offensive names during a 1991 broadcast for WAVA-FM.

Ms. Suder said the current suit is in response to events of April 5, Opening Day at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, where both WJFK and WWMX were staging live remote broadcasts.

The suit contends that "professional bantering" about relative ratings between the WJFK personalities and Ms. Tritaik escalated by game's end "to a personal vendetta against the plaintiff."

Ms. Suder said Mr. Geronimo was eventually asked to leave the WWMX broadcast area, where he had sampled food for employees.

The next day on their show, the lawsuit contends, Mr. Geronimo and Mr. O'Meara tried but failed to reach Ms. Tritaik on the phone "for the sole purpose and wrongful purpose of harassing and embarrassing her."

Subsequently, on the air they "falsely portrayed plaintiff as an obese and grotesque wild beast."

The suit includes excerpts from a taped transcript:

"We don't forget Dawn Tritaik . . . 300 pounds [cow imitation by Don or Mike]. . . . Don't eat too many leftover cheese and crackers . . . we notice Dawn has brought in doughnuts for us . . . [elephant imitations]."

They also allegedly called her as large as a billboard, although Ms. Tritaik is not overweight, the suit says.

Later, it alleges, the DJs "subjected this plaintiff to an 'outing' with the intent to injure, harm and destroy" her by broadcasting that Ms. Tritaik is a lesbian. The information was provided by an unidentified male caller, the suit says.

According to the suit, the caller offered some "dirt" on Ms. Tritaik, but declined to speak on the air and subsequently hung ** up. Mr. Geronimo and Mr. O'Meara called him back using a telephone feature that redials the number of incoming calls. While the man's comments were not broadcast live, the DJs subsequently told listeners that the caller said Ms. Tritaik was a lesbian.

The suit contends Ms. Tritaik is a private person whose work is behind the scenes. Her sexual orientation "was of no legitimate concern to the listening public" and was "a private fact of which even her own family was not aware."

The suit further contends that Mr. Geronimo and Mr. O'Meara provided Ms. Tritaik's name and the WWMX telephone and fax numbers to listeners. As a result, the suit says, she "was subjected to repeated harassing phone calls and fax transmissions which taunted her about her sexual preference."

"This case really asks the question of how and where the freedom of speech and the right to privacy cross," Ms. Suder said.

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