Models file lawsuit claiming Tampa strip club used their images without permission

The three women, in seeking at least $255,000, contend the Gold Club didn't have permission to use their images.
Professional model Eva Pepaj is part of a federal lawsuit claiming the Gold Club Tampa used this photo in its marketing without permission. Photo obtained from federal court records
Professional model Eva Pepaj is part of a federal lawsuit claiming the Gold Club Tampa used this photo in its marketing without permission.Photo obtained from federal court records
Published April 12 2016
Updated April 12 2016

TAMPA — The dark-eyed woman in the strip club ad wears a leather corset and nun's habit, enticing potential patrons of Tampa Gold Club to a "Sin Sunday" event.

But there's a problem, according to a federal lawsuit filed in Tampa this month: The model, Eva Pepaj, never gave the topless club permission to use the photo.

Pepaj is one of three professional models who filed the joint suit against Tampa Gold Club and Michael Tomkovich, president of Tampa Gold Club, Inc.

Pepaj, along with Leilani Dowding and Jessica Burciaga, claim the club on E Adamo Drive continued to use their images in marketing materials and on its website even after their attorney sent a cease-and-desist letter in December.

The suit claims the club used the photos "next to or in very close proximity to photos reflecting explicit and lewd imagery" and gave the impression that the women work as strippers or endorse the club.

"In the end, (the) defendants gained an economic windfall by using the images of professional and successful models for Defendants' own commercial purposes, luring and enticing patrons worldwide to view the images and visit its strip club, without having to compensate the models a single penny for such usage," the suit states. "(The) plaintiffs, however, sustain injury to their images, brands and marketability by (sheer) affiliation with Tampa Gold Club and the type of establishment operated by the defendants."

The photo of Pepaj in the corset and habit was posted to the club's Instagram page at least once to promote the club's Sin Sunday event and 20 percent discounts for anyone in the hospitality industry, according to the suit.

The photo of Burciaga, which shows her from the back, was used to promote the club's happy hour and lunch specials.

And the image of Dowding was posted on the club's Twitter account to recruit new talent, the suit states. The accompanying text: "BECOME A GOLD CLUB GIRL TODAY! Now hiring select females for entertainer and/or promotional modeling."

The suit list highlights of the women's resumes, none of which include experience at a strip club.

Pepaj, of Hollywood, Calif., has appeared in numerous advertisements for products ranging from Diet Coke to Fruit of the Loom.

Burciaga is an actress and former Playboy Playmate who won Stuff magazine's "Neighborhood Knockout" contest and has appeared in several magazines, including Maxim, Import Tuner, Show Latina and Lowrider. She appeared as herself in several episodes of The Girls Next Door reality TV series. She also owns a women's clothing boutique.

Dowding is described as a "British glamour model, actress and reality TV personality" who represented Great Britain in the Miss Universe pageant and in 2003 was rated the No. 89 on FHM's Sexiest Women in the World list. She has guest starred on several television shows, including The Weakest Link, Tough Love Miami and Faking It Celebrity Wrestling.

The cease-and-desist letter offered to settle the suit for $89,000. Now, the women are demanding a jury trial and an award of at least $255,000 for compensatory damages, emotional distress and attorneys fees.

Their attorney, Sarah Cabarcas with the Miami-based Casas Law Firm, declined to comment and referred a reporter to a written statement from the firm.

The lawsuit is one of four that the firm has filed against Tomkovich and four of his strip clubs in central Florida. A total of 17 models and actresses claim he pirated their images to promote the businesses.

"There is currently a pervasive custom and practice of imagery theft by these types of seedy establishments throughout the country and our clients will no longer tolerate this conduct," Joseph Casas, the firm's chief litigator, said in the statement.

Tomkovich did not return a message seeking comment.

Times senior news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.

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