Updated on March 19 at 1:20 a.m. ET
A Florida jury awarded Hulk Hogan $115 million in his lawsuit against Gawker Media for publishing part of a sex tape of him four years ago, handing the retired pro wrestler a resounding victory as the legal battle moves to the appellate courts.
Jurors found that the New York City-based outlet acted with reckless disregard when publishing the clip and awarded Hogan a hefty sum in compensatory damages: $60 million for emotional distress and $55 million for economic injury. That total could rise when the jury reconvenes to deliberate and award punitive damages.
In his lawsuit, Hogan accused Gawker of violating his privacy by publishing a one-minute and 41-second clip from a sex tape between him and a friend’s wife. Hogan said had been recorded without his knowledge or consent in 2007. He also sued the woman and her husband over the tape’s release; the two sides settled out of court.
Gawker said an anonymous source mailed them the tape years later, which then-editor-in-chief A.J. Daulerio published in 2012 with the title, “Even for a Minute, Watching Hulk Hogan Have Sex in a Canopy Bed Is Not Safe for Work but Watch It Anyway.” (Editors later excised the footage from the post, but not before it had been viewed five million times.)
While taking the stand during the two-week trial, Hogan testified that the footage’s release “turned my world upside down,” leaving him depressed and “completely humiliated.” Jurors deliberated on the verdict for six hours. Hogan openly wept as it was read.
“We’re exceptionally happy with the verdict,” Hogan’s lawyers said in a statement. “It represents a statement as to the public’s disgust with the invasion of privacy disguised as journalism. This verdict says no more.”
Gawker’s lawyers countered that Hogan’s frequent discussions of his sexual exploits—in interviews, autobiographies, and the like—made the tape a matter of legitimate public interest. They also warned of chilling First Amendment implications for journalism if Hogan’s lawsuit against them prevailed.
Nick Denton, the founder of Gawker, defended Daulerio’s decision to publish the article. “He made a contrast between an American icon and the man behind the icon,” Denton told the jury during his testimony. “And he made a self-critical point about the public's obsession with celebrity sex tapes and his own interest.” Gesturing to the constitutional aspect of the case, he also told the court that public interest “usually trumps a celebrity’s privacy.”
Beyond press-freedom concerns, the case’s sheer costs also loomed over Gawker as an existential threat. The New York Times reported last year that the site had to pay its legal fees in the Hogan case out of hand after exceeding its insurance cap. Denton also told the Times that there was a one-in-ten chance he would have to sell a controlling interest to keep the company solvent.
Gawker’s legal strategy always hinged on the appellate courts, which could be more favorable terrain for the company when raising First Amendment concerns and less susceptible to the case’s more salacious aspects.
“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 this case,” Denton said in a statement. The jury found him and Daulerio personally liable in their verdict.
Denton added that he “feels very positive about the appeal that we have already begun preparing, as we expect to win this case ultimately.”