How much do Florida jurors hate Nick Denton’s Gawker Media empire?
They hate it with a white-hot vengeance, apparently.
Three days after body-slamming Hulk Hogan’s alleged tormenters with an astounding $115 million in compensatory damages for posting a less than two-minute video of the wrestling icon sharing bedroom intimacies with a former friend’s wife (only nine seconds of which depicted actual sex), the six-member jury in Pinellas County circuit court went for a near-lethal choke hold on Monday, adding $25,100,000 in punitive damages to the already onerous sum.
The triumphant legal team of Terry Gene Bollea (Hogan’s real name) did a victory lap after Monday’s verdict.
“We are extremely happy with the verdict and Mr. Bollea feels vindicated,” said their statement. “Our victory will also deter others from victimizing innocent people. This verdict now requires those organizations to respect privacy and if not pay the price for failing to do so.”
While Team Gawker had toiled during the trial to make clear that Hogan was hardly an innocent victim—having bragged repeatedly in the media about his sexual prowess and even joked with Howard Stern about this supposedly soul-crushing, psyche-destroying sex video—the verdict will no doubt prompt news organizations to think twice before publishing damaging personal information about public figures—however true and accurate.
And while the jury’s judgment has a strong chance of being overturned by a higher court and is unlikely to set legal precedent, a prominent media law expert told The Daily Beast, it is sure to have a chilling effect on reporting about celebrities’ private lives.
More and more Hollywood movie stars, television performers, reality show denizens, pop singers, and others are apt to use the Hulk Hogan verdict as a cudgel against unwelcome, unscripted publicity and the popular culture’s insatiable appetite for celebrity gossip, said the legal expert, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The Florida jury’s punitive award breaks down as follows: $15 million charged against Gawker Media, $10 million charged personally against company founder Denton, and $100,000 against former Gawker editor in chief A.J. Daulerio, even though Judge Pamela A.M. Campbell informed the jury in her St. Petersburg courtroom that the 41-year-old Daulerio has zero material assets and an outstanding college loan of $27,000.
In the next couple of weeks, the defendants are expected to seek a waiver, or at least a reduction, in Florida’s requirement to post a $50 million bond while the case is on appeal—which, if enforced, would have ruinous consequences on Gawker Media’s operations.
After the damages were announced, according to CNN’s Tom Kludt, a female juror told journalists covering the trial that when she finally watched the 1 minute, 41 second sex video snippet that Gawker posted in October 2012 along with Daulerio’s mocking commentary—video that was never shown at trial but left to jurors’ discretion to view or not to view during deliberations—she could feel no sympathy for Denton, Daulerio, and their gossip site.
“The video was worse than I expected. Not so much the sex part of it, but just the conversation,” juror Salina Stevens said, according to CNN. “I just feel that if he knew he was being videotaped he would not have spoken about the things he spoke about,” Stevens added.
She also was apparently unmoved by Gawker attorney Mike Berry’s despondent pleas for mercy during Monday’s arguments on punitive damages.
“You have spoken. We’ve heard your judgment. We take it very seriously,” Berry grimly told the jurors. “You are now being asked to punish my clients further with an additional punishment that is unnecessary.”
Claiming that Denton’s $121 million fortune is almost entirely sunk in the company, with only $3.6 million in other assets, Berry argued that Gawker Media had revenue of less than $50 million last year and less than $10 million in earnings—and was already stressed to the breaking point with the jury’s $115 million verdict.
“Your verdict will send a chill down the spine of writers, producers, and publishers throughout the country,” Berry said, arguing that even without punitive damages, other journalists will be deterred from doing what Gawker did.
To which Hogan attorney Ken Turkel retorted to the jury: “It is interesting to know that your message has been heard loud and clear after they spent two weeks telling you how proud they were of what they did.”
A media law expert told The Daily Beast that the lavish $140,100,100 total damage assessment, while shocking, is unlikely to survive Gawker’s planned motions to the Florida appeals court. Team Gawker is claiming a surfeit of reversible errors by the judge during the two-week trial, and the state’s higher court and a federal court seem to agree, having reversed Judge Campbell on more than half a dozen occasions as the litigation proceeded.
Judge Campbell’s ruling last week to quash Gawker’s subpoena for the testimony of radio jock Bubba the Love Sponge Clem, Hogan’s former friend who in 2007 offered his then-wife Heather to the wrestling icon and then made videos of three of their encounters, was one such blunder, the defense team argues. Under oath to FBI agents and in a deposition, Clem contradicted himself—telling the FBI that Hogan knew about the camera and video, and swearing in his deposition that Hogan was ignorant of the recording devices.
Most recently, on Friday, the state appeals court released to the media more than 1,000 pages of documents that Campbell had ordered sealed—documents containing evidence that could have done serious harm to Hogan’s case had they been presented to the jury.
For instance, a file from an FBI investigation of an alleged attempt to extort Hogan with the videos contained an account of an ugly racist rant by the wrestler concerning his daughter Brooke’s dating an African American. Team Gawker suggests that suppressing the evidence of Hogan’s racism—which got him fired from World Wrestling Entertainment when the contents were revealed by the National Enquirer—was the real reason for his lawsuit, not embarrassment over a sex video.
“Soon after Hulk Hogan brought his original lawsuits in 2012, three state appeals court judges and a federal judge repeatedly ruled that Gawker’s post was newsworthy under the First Amendment,” Gawker Media’s president and general counsel, Heather Dietrick, said in a statement responding to the punitive award. “We expect that to happen again—particularly because the jury was prohibited from knowing about these court rulings in favor of Gawker, prohibited from seeing critical evidence gathered by the FBI and prohibited from hearing from the most important witness, Bubba Clem.”
Dietrick continued: “Didn’t the jury deserve to know that Bubba told his radio listeners and then the FBI, in a meeting where lying is a criminal offense, that Hulk Hogan knew he was making a sex tape? Didn’t the jury deserve to know the FBI uncovered multiple tapes of Hulk Hogan having sex with Bubba’s wife? Didn’t the jury deserve to know about the text messages Hulk Hogan sent to Bubba that undermine this case?
“There is so much this jury deserved to know and, fortunately, that the appeals court does indeed know. So we are confident we will win this case ultimately based on not only on the law but also on the truth.”