A jury in Florida found that Gawker Media, the owner of a popular celebrity and news site, invaded the privacy of the former pro wrestler known as Hulk Hogan by posting excerpts of a sex tape involving him, and awarded him $115 million in damages.
Hogan, whose real name is Terry Bollea, sued Gawker in 2012, claiming harm when the site posted a brief video of him having sex with Heather Cole, then the wife of Tampa radio personality Bubba “the Love Sponge” Clem. The video came from a surveillance camera that Clem had installed in his bedroom.
A six-person jury – four women and two men – in St. Petersburg on Friday found for the 62-year-old Hogan and awarded him $55 million in compensatory damages plus an additional $60 million for emotional distress.
The mustachioed and heavily muscled Hogan became famous as a pro wrestling character in the 1980s. Clem had been one of his close friends.
During closing remarks, Hogan’s attorney, Kenneth Turkel, sought to portray Hogan as “a regular family guy” who was hurt by Gawker’s actions.
Gawker’s defense team, meanwhile, challenged those arguments during the two-week trial, saying Hogan acknowledged on the tape that he knew he was being recorded and later bragged about his sexual prowess.
The website’s attorneys also said Gawker’s publication of the video was protected under the First Amendment and that awarding Hogan a victory would enable celebrities and public figures to punish the media for reporting things they didn’t like.
“What the plaintiff asks you to do is easy: to feel sympathy for Mr. Bollea, to muster your dislike and disdain for Gawker,” Gawker attorney Michael Sullivan told the jury Friday. “What we ask you to do is harder, very hard, but ultimately, it is right.”
In his closing remarks, Sullivan also said that Gawker’s then-editor, A.J. Daulerio, had acted legally and without “malice” – an argument the jury rejected.
“He didn’t just post a 30-minute sex tape, unedited without commentary,” the lawyer said. “Instead, he posted nine seconds of blurry sexual activity from a 30-minute sex tape. Nine seconds. The rest of that one-minute-and-41-second tape was conversation that directly complemented his commentary, making the point of the ordinariness of celebrity sex tapes. That’s not the sensational prying that would remove it from the realm of protected speech related to a matter of public concern.”
He also said Hogan never sought therapy for his purported emotional distress.
Gawker signaled that it would appeal the decision, saying in a statement before the jury’s verdict was returned that the jury was unable to consider recently unsealed documents related to the case. “It may be necessary for the Appeals Court to resolve this case,” the statement said.
Cole said during the trial that her then-husband had urged her to have sex with Hogan as part of their “open” marriage. Clem did not testify.
Jurors weren’t shown the video during the trial but were permitted to see it during deliberations.
Gawker’s appeal will probably turn on a series of sealed documents that were not introduced at trial. In a separate ruling this week, an appeals court overturned a previous ruling that had kept the documents confidential. Gawker described those records as “important evidence that the jury should have been able to see.”
The unsealed documents include text messages between Hogan and Clem, Clem’s deposition testimony, and a settlement agreement between Hogan and Clem that involved a $5,000 payment by Hogan.
Hogan sobbed after the jury’s verdict was released.
“Given key evidence and the most important witness were both improperly withheld from this jury, we all knew the appeals court will need to resolve the case,” Gawker founder Nick Denton said in his statement. He added: “I am confident that we would have prevailed at trial if we had been allowed to present the full case to the jury. That’s why we feel very positive about the appeal that we have already begun preparing, as we expect to win this case ultimately.”