A jury in Florida awarded wrestling star Hulk Hogan an eye-popping $115 million on Friday in his sex tape lawsuit against Gawker Media – and the award isn’t Hogan’s final round in the suit.
Next up, the jury will return to court Monday to award punitive damages in the case that’s been closely watched by First Amendment experts, media lawyers and privacy advocates.
And even when the jury’s done, there will be appeals.
“Given the key evidence and the most important witness in this case were withheld from the jury, we all knew the appeals court would need to resolve this case,” said Gawker founder Nick Denton.
The jurors reached their decision Friday evening. Hogan, whose given name is Terry Bollea, sued Gawker for $100 million for posting a video of him having sex with his former best friend’s wife. Hogan contended the 2012 post violated his privacy.
Jury awards this large are often reduced by appeals courts.
“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.
“It could potentially be a turning point in law,” added Barbas, a law professor at the University at Buffalo and author of “The Laws of Image,” about the history of libel and privacy
Hogan, 62, wept after the award was announced Friday evening. He was silent as he walked out of the courthouse, clad all in black and wearing sunglasses in the twilight. He didn’t speak to the media, and declined to sign an autograph request from a fan.
Hogan’s team issued a statement: “We’re exceptionally happy with the verdict. We think it represents a statement as to the public’s disgust with the invasion of privacy disguised as journalism. The verdict says no more.”
The verdict and the unsealing of hundreds of pages of documents late in the day capped a three week judicial circus in the sleepy St. Petersburg courtroom.
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.
The 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 in the case had ruled that 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 who Hogan had sex with knew it was being filmed, and that Hogan participated in an FBI investigation and sting because he was being extorted.
Lawyers for Hogan and Gawker discussed themes of personal life versus celebrity and freedom of speech versus the right to privacy.
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 $5,000.
Hogan didn’t ask for any of this to happen, lawyer Kenneth Turkel said, adding that Bollea, the private man, expected privacy during an intimate moment. Much was made during the trial of Hogan’s celebrity persona versus Bollea’s privacy.
“I want you to imagine the fact that for 35-plus years he is essentially an actor, an entertainer, who has played the same role,” Turkel said.
He said Hogan “has every right, every right, to keep whatever precious private moments in his life, which for this gentleman are very few.”
Gawker’s attorneys told the jury that the video is “not like a real celebrity sex tape” and urged them to watch the video, which contains nine seconds of sexual content.
“He has consistently chosen to put his private life out there, for public consumption,” attorney Michael Sullivan said.
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