ST. PETERSBURG, Florida — The jury in Hulk Hogan’s invasion of privacy suit against Gawker Media awarded the ex-wrestler $115 million on Friday.
The six person jury in St. Petersburg, Florida — four women and two men — deliberated for nearly six hours.
Hogan, dressed all in black including a black bandana, cried when the verdict was announced.
The ex-wrestler, whose real name is Terry Bollea, had sued Gawker, founder Nick Denton and former editor A.J. Daulerio for posting the nearly two-minute segment of a Hogan sex tape in 2012. Hogan’s suit claimed Gawker violated his privacy and sought $100 million.
“Mr. Bollea is exceptionally happy. This is not only his victory today, but also anyone else who’s been victimized by tabloid journalism,” his lawyer David Houston said outside the courtroom. Hogan stood quietly behind the lawyer, his sunglasses failing to conceal dried tears on his cheeks.
But he tweeted “Thank you God for justice.”
The jury must still consider whether to impose punitive damages next week.
“We’re coming back Monday for the rest of it,” Houston said.
Gawker’s legal team, which had argued that posting the video was protected by the First Amendment, appeared to have anticipated a costly verdict. Lawyers for the New York news site issued a statement shortly after the jury retired to begin deliberations. The statement mentioned the jury’s inability to consider a trove of recently unsealed documents related to the case.
“It may be necessary for the appeals court to resolve this case,” the statement said.
Denton read from a prepared statement outside the courthouse Friday evening that said, “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. … That’s why we feel very positive about the appeal that we have already begun preparing, as we expect to win this case ultimately.”
The “most important witness” Denton referred to was radio host Bubba “The Love Sponge” Clem who made the video. The judge in the case quashed Gawker’s subpoena to have Clem testify, citing his lack of trustworthiness.
The jury awarded Hogan $55 million for economic injuries and $60 million for emotional distress. Those same jurors will reconvene next week to consider punitive damages on top of the $115 million already awarded.
Florida law requires an appealing party to post a bond for the full amount of damages, but that requirement is capped at $50 million. Denton has been candid about the financial threat posed by the lawsuit. In January, he sold a minority stake in Gawker Media, which he founded in 2002, for the first time as an additional layer of protection.
In closing arguments earlier in the day, Hogan attorney Kenneth Turkel tried to paint the Gawker defendants as indecent gossip-mongers who make a mockery of journalism.
Turkel told the jury that Daulerio “didn’t have the common decency” to reach out to any of the parties involved before he posted the video excerpts and the commentary, which “probably tells you all you need to know about Gawker.”
Turkel invoked a 2013 interview in which Denton said “invasion of privacy has incredibly positive effects on society.”
“Who thinks like that?” the attorney asked incredulously.
On two occasions, Turkel seemed to suggest that Denton and his company don’t share the Florida jury’s values.
“This guy is up there in New York sitting behind a computer playing god with other people’s lives,” Turkel said of Denton. Turkel also scoffed that Daulerio wrote in his 2012 commentary that “the Internet has made it easier for all of us to be shameless voyeurs and deviants.”
“I’m not so sure all of us are shameless voyeurs and deviants,” Turkel said. “They may be up there on Fifth Avenue at Gawker.”
Gawker attorney Michael Sullivan restated the company’s free speech argument that’s been the bedrock of the defense’s case. The First Amendment, he told jurors, protects unpopular speech.
“What the plaintiff asks you to do is easy: to feel sympathy for Mr. Bollea, to muster your dislike and disdain for Gawker,” Sullivan said. “What we ask you to do is harder, very hard, but ultimately it is right.”
Sullivan warned that Hogan’s lawsuit could have a chilling effect on free press if “powerful celebrities, politicians and public figures would use our courts to punish people.”
“We will all be worse off as a result,” he said.
Sullivan downplayed the raunchiness of the nearly two-minute video package that was posted on Gawker, which only included nine seconds of sex. He ridiculed Hogan’s lawyers for opting against showing the excerpts in court.
Sullivan also sought to raise doubts that Hogan was unaware he was being recorded inside Clem’s bedroom, where Hogan had sex with Clem’s then-wife. The attorney noted that Hogan could be heard on the tape asking about cameras, and that the plaintiff was surely aware that Clem was in an open marriage and had a propensity for recording his wife in the act.