After a years-long legal fight, a Florida jury has ruled in favor of Hulk Hogan in his invasion-of-privacy lawsuit against Gawker Media, awarding the ex-professional wrestler $115 million.
Nick Denton, the founder of Gawker Media, said in a statement that the company plans to appeal the decision.
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. I want to thank our lawyers for their outstanding work and 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.
The case stemmed from the media company’s decision to publish an edited sex tape showing the former wrestler having sex with Heather Clem, the ex-wife of shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge Clem. At the crux of the trial was the disputed news value of the tape: Gawker Media alleged its publication of the tape was protected by the First Amendment given its perceived newsworthiness; Hogan’s legal team argued that the tape unjustly pried into his personal life.
The jury rendered its verdict just hours after closing arguments concluded Friday afternoon.
In the runup to the trial, Denton told The New York Times and others that a sizable judgment in Hogan’s favor could deal a financially crippling blow to the Manhattan-based media company. The damages awarded by the jury, although they may not stand on appeal, would seem to meet those conditions.
However, Denton has taken steps to give Gawker Media a cash cushion in the event of a hefty judgment. Earlier this year, he announced a plan to sell a minority stake in the company to the investment company Columbus Nova Technology Partners for an undisclosed sum, which presumably will shore up Gawker’s finances while it fights the ruling.
The legal tussle, which has been waging for several years, featured many legal skirmishes that were fought in Florida’s circuit and appeals courts. Among the considerations: Whether evidence gathered by the FBI during an investigation into the sex tape should be made public during the trial; whether the FBI was required to turn investigative records over to Gawker Media; whether the press would have access to sealed records reviewed by the judge; whether the press would be allowed to view the sex tape; and when the trial should take place.
Throughout the trial, Gawker Media’s attorneys consistently tried to invoke the First Amendment in order to justify the decision to publish the tape. In closing arguments Friday, Gawker Media attorney Michael Sullivan warned the jury that a verdict in favor of Hogan could set a precedent allowing celebrities to prevent the spread of unflattering information through litigation. Hogan’s team, by contrast, argued that Denton and Gawker Media were cavalier peddlers of salacious information, interested only in the clicks that exploitive news could generate.
Frank LoMonte, the executive director at the Student Press Law Center, said Friday that the verdict against Gawker Media is unlikely to set precedent that hamstrings media companies in the course of reporting the news. Because Hogan is on the margins of celebrity, and because most news organizations wouldn’t elect to publish explicit footage in a news report, the case has only narrow applications for the media industry writ large.
“What are the odds that we’re going to have [another] sex tape of one celebrity sleeping with another celebrity’s wife?” LoMonte said. “It doesn’t sound like that scenario is going to present itself too many times.”
Kevin M. Goldberg, a First Amendment attorney at legal firm Fletcher, Heald & Hildreth, said Friday that jury verdicts don’t generally set precedent. If any binding First Amendment precedent will be established in Hogan’s case, it will be on appeal.
“Juries don’t make precedent,” Goldberg said. “Judges do. So there’s very little that would come out of this case that could be applied to the media.”
Because appeals are less time-intensive than jury trials, Goldberg says, the appeals process will likely cost less than the initial legal battle. The money Gawker spends on appealing the judgment will be considerably less than the amount it might ultimately be required to pay out if it loses the case.
Correction: A previous version of this story noted that Gawker Media’s deal with Columbus Nova Technology Partners might help it “pay a portion of the damages” to Hogan. In fact, as reported by POLITICO Media, Gawker Media could pay a “supersedeas bond” that would allow it to get a temporary stay of the full judgment while it appeals the case.