Hulk Hogan awarded $115 million in salacious privacy rights trial against Gawker
By Alexa Chryssovergis
ST. PETERSBURG, Fl. — A jury awarded $115 million in damages to Hulk Hogan on Friday after a salacious trial that tested the limits of the First Amendment in the world of celebrity journalism.
The verdict, reached after six hours of deliberations, was a massive slap against Gawker Media for posting a sex tape of Hogan on its gossip site in 2012 without his permission. When Hogan originally sued the company, he only asked for $100 million.
Before the trial, Gawker’s founder acknowledged that even a smaller amount of damages could bankrupt his empire.
IDS reporter Alexa Chryssovergis reported in St. Petersburg for two days of the Hulk Hogan v. Gawker trial during spring break.
Hogan, a 6-foot-7 former professional wrestler whose given name is Terry Bollea, cried afterward, sniffling in front of the jury.
“Thank you,” he said to his team. “Just, thank you.”
Gawker CEO Nick Denton said Gawker would appeal the decision. Denton said the company’s defense had been hindered by the judge’s ruling against them calling a key witness, a Tampa radio DJ known as Bubba the Love Sponge. The sex tape at the heart of the case showed Bollea having sex with Bubba’s wife.
“I … am confident that we would have prevailed at trial if we had been allowed to present the full case to the jury,” Denton said, reading from a written statement outside the courthouse. “We expect to win this case ultimately.”
Bollea sued Gawker for invasion of privacy and infliction of emotional distress after the site published a minute-and-a-half-long excerpt from the 30-minute sex tape. Gawker’s lawyer later suggested to the jury the former wrestler knew he and his friend’s wife were being filmed on a surveillance camera. Bollea insisted he was unaware.
In closing arguments Friday morning, Bollea’s attorney Kenneth Turkel said Gawker’s editors crossed a line when they posted the sex tape.
“The simple premise is: be decent,” Turkel said. “Be a reasonable person living within a civilized society.”
Reasonable people living in civilized society don’t post secret sex tapes for millions to see, he argued.
“This guy is up in New York, sitting behind a computer and playing God with other people’s lives,” he said of Denton.
The two-week trial was at times as tawdry as the tape itself. A.J. Daulerio, Gawker’s former editor-in-chief, was grilled by Bollea’s attorney on cross examination after he said he was willing to post a sex video involving a child as young as 5.
On the stand, he insisted he’d made the comment sarcastically. Various witnesses testified about revenge porn and the proliferation of sex tapes. The jury asked Emma Carmichael, a former Gawker managing editor, if she’d slept with her bosses, a question that shocked the courtroom.
Carmichael blinked and raised her eyebrows.
“No,” she said.
In his closing argument, Gawker lawyer Michael Sullivan said in argument the sex tape was newsworthy because the former wrestler is a celebrity who has described his sex life in detail on air.
“He has a very different baseline for privacy than you or me,” Sullivan said. “And that needs to be taken into account.”
Bollea and his lawyers said in argument the sex tape’s publication on Gawker’s site was humiliating.
The case began in 2007, when Bollea was recovering from a divorce. His best friend at the time, Bubba the Love Sponge — who was born Todd Clem but later legally changed his name — offered to let Bollea have sex with his wife, Heather Clem. Bollea obliged.
Bollea testified at the trial Bubba’s wife had led him into her bedroom, and Bubba had walked in behind the two of them and even offered them a condom. Bollea asked his friend, he said, if the sex was being filmed.
“My gut was telling me that this was off,” Bollea told the jury. “This was wrong.”
When he asked if the sex was being filmed, Bubba was offended, he said.
“He just lashed into me: ‘What the hell’s wrong with you? I’m your effing best friend,’” Bollea said. “‘How dare you say that to me? I would never do that to you.’”
Bollea’s testimony began the plaintiff’s case. He towered over the rest of the courtroom. His finely groomed white handlebar mustache stood out against an indigo blue pinstripe suit.
Every day, he wore his signature black bandana. A large, silver cross hung from his neck. He sat only a few feet away from the six jurors. During courtroom breaks, he spoke quietly and occasionally cracked a smile.
When Gawker published the tape, it devastated him, he said.
“I was embarrassed by what it did to me as a person, but it was even embarrassing as a character,” he said. “Hulk Hogan was embarrassed.”
On the witness stand, Bollea emphasized his need to separate his real-life personality from his famous wrestler persona. Hulk Hogan can be boisterous and gruff, he said, but Terry Bollea is soft-spoken.
An asset evaluation analyst testified that the publication of the sex significantly increased Gawker’s company value. Gawker’s attorneys said these estimates were inflated.
Nick Denton, Gawker’s founder, described the site as a “pioneer of online media,” emphasizing how it was always meant to expose the real news — what was happening behind the scenes.
“You can call it gossip-y. I just like to call it true,” Denton said. “Because of all the hidden hands behind news, the real story often doesn’t get out.”
The jury decided to award $60 million to Bollea for emotional distress. The other $55 million was for economic injuries. On Monday the jury will deliberate on awarding punitive damages.
The verdict was announced just as it was getting dark outside. The Gawker team hurried out of the courtroom, but Bollea’s team lingered. Bollea was still sniffling.
On the elevator down from the courtroom, Bollea noticed a reporter standing across from him and turned his body toward the corner. He built his career on a hulking, hyper-masculine persona. Now, he didn’t want a stranger to see his face.
Outside, Bollea put on black sunglasses. A couple of fans were waiting for autographs.
“Excuse me, brother,” one said, clutching a Hulk Hogan action figure still in its box. “Will you sign something?”
But Bollea didn’t sign, or say anything at all.
“Not today,” his attorneys said.
Bollea and his team climbed into an all-black Ford Limited F150 and drove away.