ST. PETERSBURG, FLORIDA – A Florida jury sided with ex-pro wrestler Hulk Hogan on Friday and awarded him $115 million in his sex tape lawsuit against Gawker Media.
The jurors reached the decision Friday evening, less than six hours after they began deliberations. The trial lasted two weeks, and Hogan wept as the verdict was read.
The jury isn’t finished; they will return to court Monday to award punitive damages. Just moments after the verdict, Gawker founder Nick Denton said he will appeal, based on evidence that wasn’t introduced in court.
“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,” Denton said.
Hogan’s team issued a statement as well: “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.”
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.
First Amendment experts, media lawyers and privacy advocates watched the case closely.
“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 of Buffalo and the author of “The Laws of Image,” which focuses on the history of libel and privacy. “It could potentially be a turning point in law.”
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.
Earlier Friday, in spirited closing arguments, lawyers for Hogan and Gawker discussed themes of 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 $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.
They pointed out that news of the sex tape first appeared on at least two websites: TMZ and The Dirty. Hogan went on TMZ’s TV program to talk about it, and later, appeared on the Howard Stern show.
“He has consistently chosen to put his private life out there, for public consumption,” attorney Michael Sullivan said.
In the video, Bollea can reportedly be heard asking Clem: “You’re not filming this, are you?”
“Why does that he ask that?” Sullivan said. “Because it’s Bubba’s bedroom. If anyone knows the dark and twisted things that Bubba is into, you can bet it is Mr. Bollea — you can bet it’s Hulk Hogan.”
He also criticized Hogan’s claim that he was in Hulk Hogan persona when he was doing interviews.
“An actor playing a character does that on set, but when they go on a talk show, they’re themselves,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan called into question whether the tape was all a celebrity stunt to drum up publicity for Hogan’s career.
He suggested that although the jurors might find the video, Gawker and Hogan’s sex life distasteful, they must protect the First Amendment right to free speech.
A jury’s monetary award isn’t the last word. Such awards are usually appealed and are often reduced by appeals courts.
Hogan, who once had a reality TV show was silent Friday night as he walked out of the courthouse
The 62-year-old Hogan was 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.