The outcome comes after two weeks of testimony and six hours of deliberation on Friday.
The jury found that the news outlet violated Hogan’s privacy by posting the tape online, and that Hogan suffered severe emotional distress in the last three years since Gawker published excerpts of a video, which Hogan claimed was secretly recorded, of the former WWE star having sex with the then-wife of his best friend, radio “shock jock” Bubba the Love Sponge. The video was posted five years after it was recorded and was viewed 2.5 million times on the Gawker site.
Hogan cried and hugged attorney David Houston when the verdict was announced.
Hogan, whose real name is Terry Bollea, was the first to take the witness stand and testified that the publication of the sex tape has “turned my world upside down” and “completely humiliated” him.
Hogan said last week during the trial in St. Petersburg, Fla. that he is “not the same person I was before all this craziness happened.”
“My problem is this whole videotape that you guys put out that lives forever,” Hogan said. “It will be there forever on the Internet.”
Gawker argues that its publication of the footage was protected by the First Amendment.
“I believe in total freedom and information transparency,” said founder Nick Denton in court. “I’m an extremist when it comes to that.”
Denton released a statement on Friday following the ruling.
“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,” he said. “I want to thank our lawyers for their outstanding work and 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 this case ultimately.”
Hogan won $115 million — $60 million for emotional distress and $55 million for economic damages ($15 million more than he had sought) — with the possibility of receiving more as the jury considers punitive damages and other matters.
Legal experts were shocked by the size of the damages.
“It is a staggering verdict to say the least,” said Pierce O’Donnell of Greenberg Glusker. “It is highly likely that the trial judge will reduce the amount of the award, and if the judge does not grant a reduction, it is highly likely that the appellate court will do so.”
He added, “From what I know, [the award] bears no rational relationship to the sexual privacy interest by Hulk Hogan, nor does it bear any relationship to the amount that Gawker reaped from playing the video. This is what we call a runaway jury.”
Bradley Ellis, partner at Sidley & Austin in Los Angeles, said that it is “never good to have a verdict of this magnitude against a media defendant because by its very nature it chills speech, and will only encourage additional lawsuits.
“I think as much as anything, people are genuinely concerned — and perhaps angry — about the erosion of privacy in today’s world, and this case presented the perfect defendant and set of facts for a skilled trial lawyer to use to get a jury very angry.”