Hulk Hogan Awarded $115 Million For Gawker Sex Tape Suit
Ex-pro wrestler Hulk Hogan, whose given name is Terry Bollea, was awarded $115 million from a Florida jury in his sex tape lawsuit against Gawker Media.
Bollea sued Gawker for $100 million for a violation of privacy in posting a video of him having sex with his former best friend’s wife in 2012.
The two week trial, filled with a media circus which had followers on Twitter and livestream video gawking over the sordid details of Hogan’s sex life, including genitalia size, ended with a deliberation that lasted less than 6 hours. The award of $55 million was for economic harm, $60 million for emotional distress. Hogan wept as the verdict was read.
“It’s a huge damage award,” said Samantha Barbas, a law school professor at University of Buffalo, one of the many first amendment experts watching the case. “And just the idea that a celebrity has a right to privacy that outweighs freedom of press and the public’s right to know, that’s a huge shift in America free press law. It could potentially be a turning point in law.”
The closing arguments focused on discussion of personal life versus celebrity and freedom of speech versus right to privacy.
While Hogan’s attorney, Kenneth Turkel said that Hogan has “every right to keep whatever precious private moments in his life, which for this gentleman are very few.” The Gawker’s attorney insisted, first of all that the video is not “like a real celebrity sex tape” as it only contains nine seconds of sexual content, and also argued that Hogan has “consistently chosen to put his private life out there for public consumption.”
The jury will return to court on Monday to determine the award for punitive damages beyond Friday’s sum.
The verdict is a blow for Gawker, as the site just recently rebranded itself as a politics site. It is in the process of cleaning itself up in the wake of series of scandals.
Just moments after the verdict, Gawker founder Nick Denton announced that he would appeal based on evidence that wasn’t introduced in court.
“Given the 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 Denton.
Denton’s team argued that Bollea filed the lawsuit to hide racist comments in the video and that the woman Bollea had sex with knew she was being filmed. Bollea’s team claims Bollea didn’t consent to the video (Bollea can even be heard in the video asking “You’re not filming this, are you?”) and that Gawker didn’t follow typical journalistic procedure before posting it, not attempting to contact Bollea, the woman, Heather Clem, or her husband, DJ Bubba The Love Sponge Clem, who recorded it.
It was never conclusively determined who leaked the video. Clem, whose birth name is Tom Clem but is now legally called Bubba, invoked his right not to incriminate himself and therefore wasn’t called as a witness. Although Bollea did sue Clem, he settled for $5000.
Michael Sullivan, a representative for Gawker, said that the reason Bollea even asked if he was being taped showed that “if anyone knows the dark and twisted things that Bubba is into, you can bet it is Mr. Bollea.”
Bollea explained to the court his friendship with Clem, and how Clem encouraged him to sleep with his wife. Bollea also emphasized a distinction between himself and Hulk Hogan, his celebrity persona.
Bollea left the court house on Friday silent, refusing to talk to the media and even to sign an autograph from a fan.
The jury’s monetary award isn’t usually the final verdict. Awards are usually appealed and often reduced.
“Juries generally do not like the media,” said Clay Calvert, a professor of law and mass communications at the University of Florida, another First Amendment expert. “The appellate court is a little more neutral.”
“We expect to win the case ultimately,” said Denton.