Hulk Hogan awarded $115 million in Gawker sex tape case

Posted at 5:49 PM, Mar 18, 2016
and last updated 2016-03-18 19:49:57-04
By Tom Kludt

ST. PETERSBURG, Florida (CNNMoney) — 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 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.

Gawker’s legal team 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 issued a statement 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 jury awarded Hogan $55 million for economic injuries and $60 million for emotional distress. The jury will reconvene next week to consider punitive damages on top of the $115 million already awarded.

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.

Turkel said that Hogan, whose real name is Terry Bollea, rarely enjoys a private moment when he doesn’t have to portray the wrestling character who’s been known to the public for decades.

But Turkel told jurors that one such moment was depicted in the video, which showed Hogan having sex with Heather Cole, then the wife of radio host Bubba “the Love Sponge” Clem.

Clem, once Hogan’s close friend, recorded the sexual encounter with a surveillance camera in his bedroom.

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 also questioned the plaintiff’s claim that he endured emotional suffering as a result of Gawker’s publication.

Why then, Sullivan wondered, did Hogan make light of the sex tape after news of its existence broke on TMZ in March 2012. Hogan never sought counseling or therapy for his purported suffering, Sullivan said.

“Ask yourself: Does this sound like severe emotional distress?” Sullivan 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. 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.

Hogan settled with both Clem and Cole outside of court.