Nick Denton is quite the lawsuit magnet.
Six weeks before Hulk Hogan’s potentially company-killing, $100 million lawsuit against Denton’s Gawker Media goes to trial in Tampa, Florida, the wrestling icon’s lead attorney has slapped a fresh court action on the New York-based collection of gossip and lifestyle websites.
It’s the latest aggravation for the privately held, $40 million-a-year media enterprise that has been riven in recent months by publicly embarrassing staff turmoil, angry departures, and mounting legal troubles.
Los Angeles lawyer Charles Harder—who has been representing Terry Bollea (Hogan’s legal name) in his case against Gawker for publishing excerpts of a grainy video in which he was caught having sex with a friend’s wife—filed this latest suit in New York federal court Tuesday evening on behalf of freelance writer Ashley Terrill.
Terrill—a self-described “journalist, researcher and writer” as well as a “director and producer” based in West Palm Beach, Florida—“seeks an award of no less than $10 million in damages” in a jury trial, according to her lawsuit.
Gawker Media replied dismissively to Terrill’s complaint on Wednesday: “We see no need to comment on frivolous lawsuits.”
Denton—who is not specifically tagged as a defendant, although Gawker Media, writer Sam Biddle, and editorial director John Cook are named, along with unidentified “DOES 1-20”—didn’t respond to an email from The Daily Beast. (Neither did Biddle or Gawker President and General Counsel Heather Dietrick.)
Denton is a defendant, however, in the Hulk Hogan lawsuit, which is scheduled to begin on March 7 before Florida Circuit Court Judge Pamela Campbell, a Jeb Bush appointee who has issued various pre-trial rulings sympathetic to the plaintiff.
Even before trial, the costs of defending the Hogan suit are well into seven figures, and The Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday that Gawker Media has agreed to sell an undisclosed minority stake to Columbus Nova Technology Partners, an investment company, in a bid to secure the company’s finances in advance of what promises to be a ruinously expensive legal action—one that could result in dire consequences for Denton’s 13-year-old creation if the wrestler were to prevail.
Denton owns 68 percent of Gawker Media personally and through family trusts—a majority stake that may or may not be reduced if the confidential transaction is approved in a meeting of Gawker’s shareholders scheduled for Thursday.
The new lawsuit claims Gawker “published a false and highly defamatory hit-piece about Terrill” that harmed “her personal and professional reputation”—namely Biddle’s Nov. 23, 2015 article detailing her alleged efforts to gather dirt on a former top executive of Tinder, the wildly popular dating app that was recently spun off from IAC, the parent company of The Daily Beast.
Terrill’s suit further claims that Gawker rejected her demands to retract and remove the story—which also chronicled her alleged fears that former Tinder vice president Whitney Wolfe had hired operatives to follow her around and hack into her computers and communications devices—and violated a confidentiality agreement by disclosing her private information in the article.
Terrill had done an interview with Wolfe, then Tinder’s vice president of marketing, that Elle magazine published in October 2013—eight months before Wolfe filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against her former boyfriend and Tinder co-founder Justin Mateen along with other executives of the social networking company.
In her lawsuit, which was dropped for a reported seven-figure settlement in September 2014, Wolfe claimed that she had been abused and ultimately fired, and stripped of her official Tinder co-founder status, after her breakup with Mateen.
Terrill, according to the Gawker article, allegedly believed that an unedited audio recording of her interview with Wolfe was inconsistent with the harassment claims in the year-old lawsuit, and Terrill had been pursuing a story that would have revealed those discrepancies.
Terrill’s lawsuit quotes numerous passages—or “false statements,” as the complaint alleges—from Biddle’s article, including that she was “on an obsessive, possibly unhinged pursuit of what she says is the truth about Whitney Wolfe. Depending on who’s doing the guessing, Terrill is the target of a secret harassment operation, the agent of a covert mudslinging campaign, or an outside observer caught up in a paranoid freakout.”
Biddle acknowledged in the Gawker piece that he knew and frequently communicated with Wolfe for the article, which appears to have been exhaustively reported.
Terrill’s lawsuit claims Gawker “concealed that they were working with the very subjects of Terrill’s investigation and story and had no intention of keeping their promises to her.”
Terrill’s attorney, Harder, who emailed a copy of the lawsuit to The Daily Beast, declined to comment or to make his client available for an interview.
Terrill’s lawsuit—clearly unimpressed with Denton’s recent anguished vow to make his flagship website, Gawker.com, “20 percent nicer” and focus on politicians instead of wrestling celebrities and movie stars—pulls no punches.
“Gawker is a company that routinely engages in wrongful conduct,” the lawsuit claims, “and specifically, writes and publishes false and defamatory statements about people, invades people’s privacy and other rights, and publishes content that is irresponsible and that no other legitimate publication will publish.”
The complaint cites a dirty-laundry list of alleged Gawker infractions: including the Hulk Hogan video; the company’s failure to adequately pay more than 300 interns who’ve filed a federal lawsuit; its publication of “a stolen private video of actors Rebecca Gayheart, her husband Eric Dane, and a friend of theirs, partially nude in a hot tub,” and “of a clearly intoxicated young woman engaged in sexual activity on the floor of an Indiana sports bar,” and of a “photo, uncensored, stating that it was a photograph of [NFL quarterback Brett] Favre’s penis,” and of “Dutchess [sic] Kate Middleton’s bare breasts, captured by a paparazzi’s telephone lens while she was sunbathing at a secluded, private estate in France.”
The lawsuit also cites Gawker’s widely condemned story last July—which Denton pulled down after a firestorm of criticism—alleging that a virtually unknown, heterosexually married media executive, a suburban father of two, “had attempted to solicit a male porn star and prostitute.”
The lawsuit notes that Gawker identified the executive and his company by name but protected the identity of the porn-star “source”—and was “severely criticized throughout the media industry.”
The suit continues: “A few days later, two senior executives at Gawker promptly resigned their positions, and many other Gawker employees followed suit. It was reported that multiple major advertisers pulled their advertising from Gawker, and Gawker’s revenues sank as a result. Following these events, several more senior executives, and other employees, resigned or were terminated.”
The lawsuit names the senior Gawker managers who resigned amid the internal uproar as “President of Advertising Andrew Gorenstein, COO Scott Kidder, Chief Strategy Officer Erin Pettigrew (misspelt as ‘Petigrew’ in the lawsuit), Chief Technology Officer Tom Plunkett, Editorial Chief Tommy Craggs, and Editor-in-Chief Max Reid”—presumably a reference to Max Read, who along with Craggs, quit in a blaze of glory last July to protest Denton’s decision to pull the article about the media executive and the gay porn star.