Woman sues WBAL-TV and video dating service

January 14, 1995|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,Sun Staff Writer

Linda Gustafson said she was neither desperate nor dateless.

But that's how she was portrayed when WBAL-TV suddenly flashed a picture from her inactive dating-service membership during a 1993 sweeps-month feature called "The Meet Market."

The 33-year-old Sparks woman testified Thursday that she lost her boyfriend, endured abuse from construction crews at work and became fearful of clients and strangers after her picture was aired without her permission -- and rebroadcast even after she complained.

A Baltimore County Circuit Court jury will decide next week whether Ms. Gustafson should receive monetary damages from Great Expectations of Washington Inc. and the Hearst Corp., parent of WBAL.

Judge Dana M. Levitz, who recessed the trial over the long weekend to do research, said the case could break new legal ground in Maryland.

Ms. Gustafson said she was watching the "comical" feature on WBAL's 11 p.m. news with her father on May 18, 1993, when she suddenly saw a still from a video that she made at the Towson office of Great Expectations, which she had joined in 1989.

The jury saw an edited tape of the TV feature, in which anchorwoman Carol Costello -- on special assignment -- described the "desperate and dateless."

She interviewed a man in a Fells Point bar who boasted about the number of women who responded to his singles ad.

The scene then shifted to the dating service, "and BOOM, there I was in living color," said Ms. Gustafson, a saleswoman for Landmark Homes.

In their statements at the start of the three-day trial, attorneys for the dating service and TV station blamed each other for the mix-up.

Mary Craig, representing WBAL, said Ms. Costello didn't even know the name of the woman whose picture was used for about three seconds. Great Expectations chose Ms. Gustafson's video, the attorney said, and told Ms. Costello they would call if there was any problem in using it. Ms. Costello testified that she was never contacted.

But Jonathan Stebenne, the attorney for Great Expectations, said there were two messages left at Channel 11, one specifically telling Ms. Costello not to use the video.

Ms. Gustafson testified that she was called before the show aired by a former employee of the dating service "who was really excited. He said, 'She picked your picture: Out of the entire library, you were chosen.' "

After a stunned silence, Ms. Gustafson said she replied: "First of all, who gave you the permission to show my video to Carol Costello? . . . Get something straight: I have frozen my membership; I have met someone; I don't want anyone to know that I'm a member of your service. Don't you dare air my video."

She said only two friends knew she had joined the service in 1989 after a painful divorce. After the program aired, she said, her father lectured her like a child. Worse yet, she said, the man she had met outside the dating service -- and hoped to marry -- called within minutes, demanding to know, "How you could be part of something so sleazy?"

Their relationship hasn't recovered, she said.

Ms. Gustafson called Ms. Costello the next day. She was assured by the anchorwoman and news director David I. Roberts that they understood her embarrassment and that her picture would be deleted if the segment ran again. But Mr. Roberts testified yesterday that he forgot to order the deletion.

Under cross-examination by Ms. Gustafson's attorney, Michael E. Kaminkow, Mr. Roberts said, "I can honestly sit here and tell you that one of the lessons learned is not to necessarily believe what we are told by a company . . . I know what I should have done, but by no means were we acting arbitrarily or intentionally to hurt anyone, so that's the bottom line."

After the segment was repeated the next morning, Ms. Gustafson sued the station and the dating service for damages ranging from $500,000 to $1.5 million. She alleged invasion of privacy and negligence by both defendants, and negligent misrepresentation by the dating service for supposedly promising confidentiality in its $1,600 package.

Ray Dixon Walker, vice president of Great Expectations in Baltimore, Washington and Raleigh, N.C., told the jury yesterday that he had been trained to deal with "the media."

He chose cooperation over confrontation, he said, and while he was displeased that Ms. Gustafson's picture was aired, he felt Great Expectations was portrayed positively -- and sent flowers to Ms. Costello the next day.

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