Sunday, March 20, 2016

Gawker Body-Slammed by Hulk Hogan; Privacy Exists for Public Figures

Terry Bollea a/k/a Hulk Hogan*
Hulk Hogan -- real name Terry G. Bollea -- delivered a bodyslam of financially fatal magnitude to sensational gossip website and its owner Nick Denton.  A Penellis County, Florida jury (Clearwater / St. Petersburg) awarded $115 million damages to Bollea ("Hogan") for economic loss and emotional distress cause by Gawker posting a segment of a grainy black and white of the wrestling megastar having sex with a now former friend's wife back in the mid-2000s.

For Gawker, the worst may be yet to come. The award was only for economic loss and emotional distress. Yet to come is the punitive damage portion of the trial where Gawker will have to disclose its corporate finances and Denton may have to disclose his personal wealth. And when the jury is done, most of that wealth could end up in the bank account of Hulk Hogan ("Bollea").

Gawker, Denton and its lawyer were unrepentant in their defense, and remain so after the verdict. They argued that Hogan was a public figure who had made statements making his sex life a matter of public interest. Gawker has already indicated it will appeal.

This is a clear warning show for websites, journalists, writers, gossips, and even those who post on social media. The protections for statements about public figures provided by the landmark 1964 New York Times vs. Sullivan Supreme Court decision has its limits.  The jury in this case clearly was appalled by Gawker's conduct. It drew a line at posting surreptitiously recorded videos of a person having sex, no matter how much of a public figure they are.

My thoughts on where this case goes from here?  Barring reversible issues on discovery rulings, evidentiary rulings and jury instructions, I expect that Gawker's liability will be upheld, including its liability for eventual punitive damages. However I would be shocked if the courts let a jury verdict in this amount stand. I expect that through post-trial motions, the trial judge will reduce the verdict. On appeal, the appellate courts may whittle away at it further. But when all is said and done, this verdict will still likely put an 8-figure dent in the Gawker bank account.

* Photo licensed for public use


  1. Good analysis. I had trouble with the size of the economic damages, and see those being slashed. I expect punitive damages of whatever amount being approved by the trial court, and get a shave at the appellate court. Would prefer to cause one such business to shut down.

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