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But before the two could meet, another AOL worker grew suspicious and logged on to the defendant's computer and found evidence of the relationship, according to the suit. Graham said the employee was caught through "internal controls" but declined to elaborate.

One advocate for abused children said she was "disappointed and saddened" that AOL had not prevented the incident -- or at least discovered it sooner.

"The Internet danger is so rampant in our country right now," said Tamara Tucker of the Missouri-based Child Abuse Prevention Assn. "The man should never have had such unprotected access to the children."

The lawsuit accuses AOL, parent company Time Warner Inc. and the employee of inflicting emotional distress upon the girl. AOL and Time Warner are also accused of negligently failing to supervise their employee and of false advertising for saying the service was safe for children.

"You're truly looking at a situation where you have a wolf looking over the chicken coop," said Olivier Taillieu, the girl's Beverly Hills attorney. The Times is not naming the plaintiff because she was a minor and is not identifying the defendant because he was never charged with a crime.

The girl, now 19 and living in Los Angeles County, waited two years after the relationship ended before filing the suit in part because "it's a very confusing and painful time for her," Taillieu said.

"It takes a lot of courage and a lot of strength to make that kind of a statement at such a public level," he said.

Graham said he did not know if it is the first case of its kind at AOL.

But the company puts chat room monitors through "rigorous screening and training procedures," including a criminal background check, he said.

According to the lawsuit, the girl became an AOL member when she was 10. Her mother insisted that the girl use only the chat rooms monitored by AOL and reserved for children under 12, even as her daughter became a teenager.

When she was 15, the girl met the AOL employee in a children's chat room that he patrolled. The more they talked over the Internet, the more she began to confide in him -- about being shuttled between her divorced parents, about her troubles making friends, about her feelings that she couldn't put down roots anywhere.

They chatted often, using e-mail and AOL's Instant Messenger, and later began talking on the phone, the suit contends. "The messages and conversations became more and more flirtatious," the lawsuit said. "Until they became downright inappropriate."

They exchanged photos, which became more explicit, then progressed to videos and finally phone sex, the lawsuit says. AOL did not monitor the employee's work e-mail account to ensure that he was not having an improper relationship with chat room users, according to the suit.

They arranged to meet in California for her 17th birthday, the girl contends in her suit. But that plan was foiled by the suspicious co-worker.

"He used her youth against her," the lawsuit said. "He stole from her. And as a result, she will bear emotional scars that will never completely heal."

The allegation will cause some damage to AOL's efforts to portray itself as a safe place for families, said Rob Sanderson, an analyst with American Technology Research.

But he doesn't believe it will cause lasting harm to the company's reputation.

"It's sort of like the accident at the amusement park -- people still go to the amusement park," he said.

Neither local nor federal prosecutors have filed criminal charges in the case.

Karen Ernst, spokeswoman for the FBI office in Sacramento, said Friday that the bureau opened an investigation in April 2003 but decided that criminal prosecution was not warranted. It was not immediately clear whether the case was closed for lack of evidence or because the alleged conduct did not specifically violate criminal statutes governing communications on the Internet.

Federal law prohibits sending obscene material to a minor. It also bars attempting to have sex with someone under 16, provided the suspect is at least four years older than the victim.

But former Los Angeles Deputy Dist. Atty. Steve Meister, now a defense attorney in private practice in Los Angeles, said a prosecution under this law would depend on the age of the minor at the time plans were made, and evidence of those plans.

"These cases can be difficult," Meister said.

Times staff writers Greg Krikorian, David Colker and Jon Healey contributed to this report.