A Florida jury sided with wrestler Hulk Hogan Friday in his sex tape lawsuit against Gawker Media, and awarded him $115 million for invasion of privacy. Gawker is appealing the ruling.
The celebrity wrestler, whose legal name is Terry Bollea, filed suit accusing the website of invading his privacy when it published a portion of a video showing him having sex with the wife of a former friend, along with 1,400 words describing the video.
Bollea, 62, sought $100 million in damages from Gawker. He was awarded $55 million in economic injuries and $60 million for emotional distress, Reuters reports. The jury returns on Monday to consider punitive damages.
In a statement, Gawker founder Nick Denton said, “Given key evidence and the most important witness were both improperly withheld from the jury, we all knew the appeals court will need to resolve this case.”
The witness to which Denton alludes, is reportedly the husband of the woman in the sex tape, Bubba Clem, who Gawker lawyers wanted to question in order to show that that one or both of the parties knew about the taping. Their thinking is that if the defense could establish that the tape was made as a publicity stunt, then it was fair game to be covered as news.
As the Two-Way previously reported, the issue of whether the video is newsworthy was a point of focus in much of the case. Gawker argued that Bollea’s “frequent public discussion of his sex life made the clip newsworthy and thus protected by the First Amendment.”
Bollea’s lawyers argued that distinguishing between the character of Hulk Hogan and Bollea’s real life was crucial.
“I’m kind of concerned about Hulk Hogan’s privacy, but you kind of give it away,” Bollea testified in court, according to The New York Times. “But in the privacy of your own home, no one invades my privacy.”
According to the Guardian, Bollea’s lawyers also called Gawker’s “common decency” into question during closing argument on Friday:
“Kenneth Turkel, a lawyer for Hogan, told jurors Gawker editors had not even had the ‘common decency’ to call Hogan for comment before they posted the video.
“Turkel walked jurors through Hogan’s case: that his right to privacy was gratuitously compromised by Gawker, that his reputation was materially compromised, and that he suffered emotional distress of ‘outrageous intensity and duration.’ “
The jury agreed.
Gawker, however, has “warned that if Hogan wins the case, the decision could not only destroy the company – a loss could cost the site up to $50 [million],” the Guardian writes.
Denton’s statement also said, “I … am confident that we would have prevailed at trial if we had been allowed to present the full case the the jury. That’s why we have already begun preparing, as we expect to win this case ultimately.”
Gawker Media president and general counsel Heather Dietrick said in October that she wouldn’t be surprised if Gawker lost the case, but didn’t think that the jury would award Bollea $100 million, Politico Media reported at the time.
“It’s quite possible that Hogan just gets a very small judgment against us, and then we have to make the decision: do we appeal that and incur further fees to vindicate the First Amendment rights that we know we’re on the right side of,” she said. “Or do we simply say, OK this very small judgment is a win and makes it very difficult for Hulk Hogan, who’s spent a lot of time on pursuing this case and could walk away with something very small.”
Apart from the statement released by Denton, Gawker Media writers and editors, who had been weighing in on the case — sometimes gleefully — for months on social media, did not offer any opinions on the ruling. And Gawker itself, which had been covering the case, (once publishing a story entitled, “A Judge Told Us to Take Down Our Hulk Hogan Sex Tape Post. We Won’t.“) also had not published a post on the website hours after the ruling.
Advocates for free speech, however, spoke up, saying that ruinous media fines were in contradiction with the First Amendment and that Gawker was well within its rights as a news site to publish interesting stories pertaining to celebrities. An attorney for Gawker, Michael Sullivan, said in court Friday that while jurors may find the publication of the tape “unpleasant,” the post was still free speech under the Constitution.
“We ask you to protect something that some of you may find unpleasant,” he said, according to The Associated Press. “To write, to speak, to think about all topics, to hold public figures accountable. It is right in the long run for our freedoms.”