Jury Awards Hulk Hogan $115 Million in Privacy Suit Against Gawker

Gawker plans to appeal the ruling, citing 'improperly withheld' witnesses.
March 19, 2016, 4:05pm
Hulk Hogan. Photo: Mike Kalasnik/Flickr

When people in the future talk about Hulk Hogan's greatest victory, they may not speak of his 1987 win against André the Giant or his victory over Randy Savage in Wrestlemania V. Instead, they might mention yesterday, when a Florida jury awarded the wrestling icon with $115 million in his suit against Gawker Media over an invasion of privacy stemming from a sex tape posted to Gawker.com in 2012.

As massive as that number is, that's not the end of it. On Monday, the jury will reconvene to decide the extent of punitive damages.

Understandably, Gawker plans to appeal the verdict. In fact, Gawker founder Nick Denton had predicted events would unfold like this last year.

"Being the character Hulk Hogan, I thought we were doing a skit, so privacy never entered my mind at the time."

Hogan, whose legal name is Terry Bollea, had originally sought $100 million from Gawker Media, Gawker publisher and founder Nick Denton, and former editor A.J. Daulerio. (We covered some of the ramifications of the case in greater detail yesterday.) Instead, the jury of two men and four women awarded the 62-year-old Bollea $55 million for economic injuries and $60 million for emotional distress. The tape in question showed Bollea having sex with the wife of the Todd Clem, a shock jock now legally known as Bubba the Love Sponge and one of Bollea's former friends. Gawker had paired the original post with a lengthy article with commentary about the attraction of sex tapes, and when it was ordered to take it down later, Gawker initially refused. Months before Gawker had published the tape, however, stills and news about the tape had already been posted to sites like TMZ.

Denton remained resolute following the ruling, as seen in a statement posted by CNN to Twitter:

"Given key evidence and the most important witnesses were both improperly withheld from the jury, we all knew the appeals court will need to resolve the case. 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 the case ultimately."

As The Hollywood Reporter suggests, the witness is likely The Love Sponge himself, who reportedly received a $5,000 settlement before the trial began. Bubba reportedly told Bollea that his wife was the person responsible for the camera being in the bedroom at the time of the act, although Cole said in her own testimony that she didn't know she was being taped. Pamela Campbell, the Florida judge overseeing the case, refused to force Clem to testify and told the jury that they "should draw no inference from that."

It's an important point for Gawker, though, as proof that either of the parties knew they were being filmed could prove the act was a publicity stunt. Indeed, much of Bollea's defense hinges on the question of whether the sex tape was "newsworthy."

As The New York Times related on Thursday, Gawker argued that the First Amendment ensured their right to publish the video, particularly since Hogan frequently refers to his sex life in everything from autobiographies and television to radio interviews with Howard Stern. In a deposition video shown to the jury, however, Bollea argued that it was Hulk Hogan the character who said these things.

"To the best of my knowledge, I never talked about sexual encounters with Heather Clem on the radio," said Bollea. "Being the character Hulk Hogan, I thought we were doing a skit, so privacy never entered my mind at the time."

As CNN reports, even if Gawker manages to successfully appeal the verdict, it will still likely have to pay a $50 million bond under Florida law. Paying the full amount could be devastating for Gawker Media, as a 2015 report pegged its total worth at around $250 million. In addition to Gawker proper, Gawker Media is also the parent company for the sites Gizmodo, Kotaku, Lifehacker, Jezebel, io9, Deadspin, and Jalopnik. Even if little of the full amount ultimately ends of getting paid, the jury's actions here could dissuade other publications from running similar stories in the future.

In a statement to The New York Times, Bollea's lawyers said the verdict represents "a statement as to the public's disgust with the invasion of privacy disguised as journalism."