(CN) – A Florida jury on Friday evening award Terry Bollea, otherwise known as the wrestler Hulk Hogan, $115 million in damages, concluding that Gawker Media, its pubisher and its former editor violated his privacy by publishing an excerpt of a sex tape in which he appeared.
The jury of four women and two men deliberated just six hours before ruling in favor of Bollea, who cried as the verdict was announced.
The jury’s award does not include punitive damages. The $115 million in compensatory damages awarded to Bollea Friday is comprised of $55 million in economic injuries and $60 million for emotional distress.
The jury will reconvene next week to decide upon additional punitive damages.
Bollea sued Gawker in 2012 for publishing portions of a sex tape between the wrestler and Heather Cole, the former wife of shock jock and the wrestler’s then-best friend Bubba “the Love Sponge” Clem.
Gawker’s founder Nick Denton and its former editors, A.J. Daulerio and Emma Carmichael, defended posting the sex tape excerpt on its website, contending that in the final analysis “the public’s right to know trumps privacy.”
After the verdict was announced, Denton released a statement that said he plans to appeal and that he’s confident he and his publication will prevail.
“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,” the publisher said. “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.”
Bollea has waged a four-year legal battle against Gawker after they published portions of a recording that showed the wrestler having sex with the former wife of Bollea’s then-best friend Bubba “the Love Sponge” Clem.
Clem, a Tampa-based shock jock, recorded the liaison in 2007. Five years later, a 30-minute-long DVD showed up at Gawker’s New York offices. Daulerio created a 1:41 minute “highlight reel” of the sex tape, added commentary and posted it. Millions of people viewed the post before a court order forced the website to take it down.
Bollea always contended he did not know his former best friend filmed the encounter and claimed Gawker invaded his privacy while simultaneously making money off of him. Gawker argued Bollea was a public figure who talked openly about his sex life on TV and radio – making the post newsworthy.
“If the plaintiff were right, that posting a truthful video of him to accompany a commentary can be the basis of a claim, then the Internet as we know it will cease to exist,” Gawker attorney Michael Sullivan said in closing statements.
Throughout the trial, Bollea’s lawyers said the former wrestler was in character when he made those remarks. But even so, they argued, Gawker had no right to post the video of the sex tape, particularly without attempting to contact the parties involved.
“Reasonable people in a civilized society don’t take secretly recorded sex tapes from a private bedroom and send them out into the world,” Bollea attorney Ken Turkel said in his own closing remarks.
In the end, sympathy for Bollea’s privacy rang more true with the jury than Gawker’s more theoretical First Amendment argument. In wrestling parlance, Bollea was the “babyface,” a good guy who successfully made the gossip website out to be an amoral “heel.”
Bollea also won in several court decisions by Judge Pamela Campbell, including permission to wear his infamous bandanna in court.
It was Campbell, of the Sixth Judicial Court of Pinellas County, who first ordered Gawker to remove the offending video from its site. She also allowed Bollea’s attorneys to inspect the website’s computers during discovery.
But perhaps most importantly to the plaintiff, Judge Campbell sealed documents connected to a FBI investigation over the sex tape. Florida’s Second District Court of Appeals overturned her decision this week, but the 2,000 pages of documents were not made public until the jury began deliberating.
In those documents, Bubba The Love Sponge Clem told investigators Bollea knew about the camera that recorded him. After settling with Bollea for $5,000, Clem changed his story. Earlier in the week, Judge Campbell quashed an order compelling him to testify.
The documents also unveil transcripts of the conversations Bollea had with Clem’s wife after they had sex. One heavily-redacted transcript alludes to Bollea’s racist comments about his daughter’s boyfriend, which made news last year and prompted World Wrestling Entertainment to remove all mention of him from their website and Wrestling Hall of Fame. The jury never heard about it.
The two-week trial took some unexpected turns with sexually-explicit testimony and contentious cross-examinations.
While on the stand, Bollea talked about his “artistic liberty” when playing the character of Hulk Hogan, like when he alluded to having a 10-inch penis during a radio appearance.
“Well, it’s not mine, because mine isn’t that size, but we were discussing the length of Hulk Hogan’s [penis]” Bollea told the courtroom. “No seriously, I do not have a 10-inch penis.”
While questioning Gawker founder Denton, Bollea’s attorney made him read the graphic play-by-play commentary of the sex tape post. Bollea’s attorneys also played the deposition of Daulerio, the former editor, in which he said he would publish any type of sex tape, except one involving a child.
“Under what age?” Bollea’s attorney asked in the deposition, to which Daulerio responded: “Four.”
Daulerio later said he was being sarcastic.
The jurors also became a topic of discussion after Judge Campbell read one of their questions to former managing editor Emma Carmichael. (Florida allows jurors to pass questions to the judge in civil cases.)
“Do you have or did you have an intimate relationship with either Mr. Daulerio or Mr. Denton?” Judge Campbell asked for the juror. Carmichael said no.
Bollea and his partner in the sex tape, Heather Cole, gave detailed accounts of their tryst and described how Bubba The Love Sponge Clem often propositioned the former wrestler to have sex with his wife.
“I actually took it as a joke,” Bollea said on the stand.
One night, after a fight with his then-wife, Bollea agreed. Clem handed Bollea a condom. At one point, while standing in Clem’s bedroom, Bollea asked if he was being recorded.
“It was so weird and so crazy,” he said on the first day of trial. “My gut was just telling me this was wrong.”
Five years later, after a finalized divorce and new wife, the video surfaced.
Photo credit: Boyzell Hosey, Tampa Tribune (photo pool).
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