A Florida jury wrestled with the facts for six hours, then hit Gawker Media with a $115 million leg drop.
The jury hearing Hulk Hogan’s sex tape lawsuit found the gossip website invaded the wrestling icon’s privacy when it published grainy footage of him having sex with his best friend’s wife.
Hogan bowed his head and appeared to cry when the verdict came down. His longtime lawyer David Houston smiled and reached out to pat him on the back.
The St. Petersburg, Fla., jury awarded $55 million for economic injuries and $60 million for emotional distress.
|Hulk Hogan hugs his attorney Shane Vogt outside of the courthouse on Friday.|
“Praying,” Hogan tweeted shortly after the six jurors started their deliberations around 1 p.m. Friday.
The lightning-fast verdict came after spirited closing arguments delivered Friday morning.
Hogan’s camp said the $100 million lawsuit against Gawker centered on the sacred right to privacy that all people — no matter how famous — should enjoy when engaging in sexual relations in a private bedroom.
Gawker argued that bedrock First Amendment rights and the “Internet as we know it” hung in the balance.
Addressing jurors first on Friday, Hogan’s lawyer said his client was really just a lonely and self-conscious family guy in search of a home-cooked meal when he hopped in the sack with Heather Clem in 2007.
Nick Denton, founder of Gawker, whose company has to pay $115 million to Hogan.
He said Hogan, now 62, was utterly blindsided when Gawker posted video of the lusty liaison on its website in 2012.
“I think that being in a bedroom with your best friend's wife should be something Terry should expect to be private,” lawyer Kenneth Turkel said, using Hogan's real name Terry Bollea.
Turkel said despite Hogan's public image as a strapping stud, he has softer side in private.
“He is self-conscious about the size of his head,” said Turkel as he explained his client's penchant for head-covering bandanas.
“He is a regular family guy,” the lawyer said.
Cole was married to shock jock Bubba “the Love Sponge” Clem at the time the sex tape was recorded. She said in court this week that her husband urged her to have sex with Hogan.
“This case is about those areas that even celebrities should have privacy,” said Turkel.
In his own closing argument, Gawker lawyer Michael Sullivan defended the site’s former editor-in-chief A.J. Daulerio arguing that Hogan’s public boasts about his sex life diminished his right to privacy.
Former Gawker Media editor-in-chief A.J. Daulerio said Hogan's public boasts about his sex life diminished his right to privacy.
“They seek to punish Mr. Daulerio for adding his voice to the others that were already speaking about the Hulk Hogan sex tape — a chorus of voices in which Hulk Hogan is often the loudest,” Sullivan said.
“Things that people are already talking about are fair game and should not be the stuff of lawsuits like this,” he said. “Otherwise, we will become a nation where powerful celebrities, politicians and public figures will use our courts to punish people for saying things that they frankly do not like. And we will all be worse off as a result.”
He suggested at one point that Hogan and Bubba the Love Sponge may have conspired to make the sex tape for personal gain.
“Ask yourselves, is this just another antic between two best friends, another secret that they'll take to their graves?” he asked the jury.
“Was it a publicity stunt?” he asked. “Only two people know for certain, Bubba the Love Sponge and Mr. Bollea. But you will not hear from Bubba.”
Gawker released a statement Friday expressing disappointment that Bubba wasn't forced to testify about statements he made to his radio listeners suggesting Hogan knew he was being taped.
“Bubba should have been required to appear in court and explain what really happened,” the Gawker statement said. “There is still more to the story.”
Gawker said it hoped the planned release of “improperly sealed documents” in the case would take place as promised Friday and “begin revealing the true facts that the jury deserved to now about during deliberations.”
In his closing remarks, Sullivan said Daulerio and his team acted legally and without any “malice.”
“He didn't just post a 30 minute sex tape, unedited without commentary,” the lawyer said. “Instead, he posted nine seconds of blurry sexual activity from a 30-minute sex tape. Nine seconds. The rest of that one-minute and 41 second tape was conversation that directly complimented his commentary, making the point of the ordinariness of celebrity sex tapes. That’s not the sensational prying that would remove it from the realm of protected speech related to a matter of public concern.”
Sullivan pointed out that other websites already had published commentary on the existence of the sex tape, and he again highlighted Hogan's statements about his sexual prowess.
“If you stop and think about this, this record, you would be hard pressed to think of anyone other than an actual porn star who has made the attributes of his body parts and his prolific sex life more a part of our public discourse. He's done so on television, on radio, in print, and that is why he cannot establish that Gawker’s publication was highly offensive to him,” the lawyer said.
He said Gawker's jokes about the tape were the “very same” jokes made by shock jocks close to Hogan.
“If the plaintiff were right, if posting a short truthful video of him to accompany a commentary can be the basis for a claim, then the Internet as we know it will cease to exist,” Sullivan said.
Turkel then got the last word and told jurors during a short rebuttal that they shouldn’t be offended by the fact Hogan went on shock jock shows to promote his career.
“It’s a demographic that wrestling audiences listen to. You go on the show at your own risk and you have no control. And yes it’s raunchy. It does not open the door to putting a camera in a bedroom and putting that on the Internet,” he said.
Hogan’s legal team has argued that Gawker’s value increased by millions of dollars after it posted the tape, drawing more eyeballs to its website.
“It got everyone looking,” Turkel said. “Using Mr. Bollea’s image has value.”
Sullivan said there was no “sustained Hulk effect” when it came to site traffic.