Hulk Hogan arrives before the start of his trial. Photo / AP
A Florida jury has sided with ex-pro wrestler Hulk Hogan and awarded him US
$115 million ($168m) in his sex tape lawsuit against Gawker Media.
The jurors reached the decision less than six hours after they began deliberations. Hogan wept as the verdict was read. The jury will return to court tomorrow to award punitive damages.
Gawker founder Nick Denton said he will appeal, based on evidence that wasn’t introduced in court.
Hogan, whose given name is Terry Bollea, sued Gawker for US$100m for posting a video of him having sex with his former best friend’s wife. Hogan contended the 2012 post violated his privacy.
“It’s a huge damage award, and just the idea that a celebrity has a right to privacy that outweighs freedom of the press and the public’s right to know, that’s a huge shift in American free press law,” said Samantha Barbas, a law professor at the University at Buffalo and the author of The Laws of Image, which focuses on the history of libel and privacy.
Jurors, media and thousands who followed the case on Twitter and livestream video were treated to days of details about Hogan’s sex life, body part size, and images of him in thong underwear.
There was wrestling history, videos of Hogan yukking it up with Howard Stern and, most notably, how Gawker – a 12-year-old news
and gossip website in New York City – does journalism differently from legacy media.
Unsealed documents will undoubtedly be key in Gawker’s appeals process. The evidence was unsealed because a group of media companies, including the Associated Press, sued for access and won.
The civil court judge ruled the documents be sealed, but an appellate court sided with the media companies, saying they were of legitimate public interest.
The documents outline allegations, facts and conflicting testimony. Among them: assertions that Hogan filed the lawsuit to hide racist comments made on video, that the woman Hogan had sex with knew it was being filmed and that Hogan participated in an FBI investigation and sting because he was being extorted. In closing arguments, lawyers for Hogan and Gawker discussed personal life versus celebrity and freedom of speech versus the right to privacy.
Hogan’s attorneys told jurors this is the core of the case: “Gawker took a secretly recorded sex tape and put it on the internet.”
They said Hogan didn’t consent to the video, that Gawker didn’t follow usual journalism procedures before posting it and that the video wasn’t newsworthy.
Gawker did not try to contact Hogan or the woman in the video; nor did the website contact the woman’s husband, DJ Bubba The Love Sponge Clem, who recorded the video.
It was never conclusively determined during the trial who leaked the video to the media. Clem invoked his right to not incriminate himself and wasn’t called as a witness. Hogan sued Clem and settled for US$5000.
A jury’s monetary award isn’t the last word. Such awards are usually appealed and are often reduced by appeals courts.