(CN) — A federal jury found that group of mothers and birth industry professionals did indeed defame a Honolulu-based birth supporter and maternity photographer during their participation in a viral social media campaign that accused him of preying on pregnant women and mothers.
After a week and a half of trial, during which U.S. District Judge Leslie Kobayashi heard from five of the named defendants, the jury decided that all but one of the defendants defamed him when they made posts and comments in various women’s and birthing community Facebook groups that alleged he had “infiltrated the birthing world” and was using his ill-gotten access to doula and pregnancy groups to find women vulnerable to his suggestion that they begin to make erotic content to sell online.
The seven-person jury, consisting of four men and three women, first returned Wednesday afternoon with their verdict after two days of deliberations.
Five of the remaining defendants in a case that had at one point included up to 18 named defendants, Vivian Chau Best, Emilee Saldaya, Jane Hopaki, Stephanie Byers and Bethany Kirillov, were found to have defamed him in their public postings where they warned women to stay away from Gallagher by calling him a pimp and a broker of women. The jury also found that these defamatory posts did not cause emotional distress.
The jury further found that Kate Pavlovsky, who was the only remaining defendant to have had direct contact with Gallagher in which they discussed the selling and marketing of erotic pregnancy content on cam sites, did not defame him when she spoke online of her experiences with Gallagher.
The accusations against Gallagher first arose from interactions he had in various birthworker and women’s Facebook groups where he posted an article about one mother’s success in selling pregnancy and lactation-based pornography and encouraged women in the groups to pursue the same. Word soon spread online that some women had begun feeling uncomfortable about these interactions.
The defense had maintained throughout the trial that the women were acting on the best information they had when making the posts. All the women had testified that their main priority was to protect other women, not to defame the plaintiff.
The jury, which had initially returned on Wednesday with nominal damages of one dollar, decided on punitive damages in the thousands for each of the defendants.
During closing arguments on Tuesday, Megan Kau, attorney for Gallagher, had said that the defamation had occurred in the specific language used by the defendant in these posts that told other women he was a sexual predator.
“They didn’t just say he was a liar. They chose to use these damaging words,” she said.
Gallagher first filed the defamation complaint, which includes claims for libel and emotional distress, in September 2018. He claimed a laundry list of defendants defamed him by engaging in social media activity that alleged he was luring women into creating pornography content based around pregnancy and lactation, and was otherwise engaging in sexually inappropriate behavior with mothers and pregnant women.
The complaint went through several iterations as Gallagher expanded his claims to include more defendants as the post continued to spread in the birthing and maternity communities online. After several dismissals and amendments, only seven women remained by the start of the trial.
Gallagher claimed in his suit that the accusations made against him ruined his personal and professional reputation and cost him future employment and income. The defense had said during the trial that he had not enjoyed a particularly positive reputation nor significant finances for the defendants to even ruin.
On Thursday, counsel for the defense Eric Seitz, Kevin Yolkan, and Nadine Ando opposed the thousand’s of dollars of punitive damages per each defendant awarded to the plaintiff, which Seitz, attorney for Jane Hopaki, said were not consistent with lack of damages the jury settled on.
“The charges should never have been brought in the first place,” Seitz said to Courthouse News after Thursday’s verdict. The defense counsel asked Judge Kobayashi to refer the matter of what Ando, attorney for Best and Saldaya, called “grossly excessive” punitive damages to a magistrate judge.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.