On Friday, Hulk Hogan was awarded $115 million in his sex-tape lawsuit against Gawker Media — and that might be just the beginning.
The trial is about to enter its punitive damages phase, which means the jurors (the same individuals who already determined Hogan’s $115 million judgement) will decide if he deserves additional money.
The damages could potentially be two to three times more than the amount Hogan has already been awarded. In the end, he could be awarded around a half billion dollars from Gawker.
The jury ruled that Hogan, 62, suffered “severe emotional distress” over the publication of segments of a tape that featured him having sex with a friend’s wife, and that his privacy was invaded by the online gossip site.
The jurors reached the decision in less than six hours after they began deliberations. The trial lasted two weeks, and Hogan wept as the verdict was read.
Just moments after the verdict, Gawker founder Nick Denton said he would appeal, based on evidence that wasn’t introduced in court. Denton refused to take down the Hogan sex tape from his site in 2006, which may now cause Gawker and its nine ancillary publications to collapse.
If the judge in the case imposes a bond on Gawker, which its representatives say it cannot pay, then filing for bankruptcy may be the the company’s only option.
“Given the key evidence and the most important witness in this case were withheld from the jury, we all knew the appeals court would need to resolve this case,” Denton said.
Hogan’s team issued a statement as well: “We’re exceptionally happy with the verdict. We think it represents a statement as to the public’s disgust with the invasion of privacy disguised as journalism. The verdict says no more.”
American entertainment attorney Bert Fields told The Wrap that the $115 million award might actually backfire during the appeals process.
“The award strikes me as being very, very high and perhaps the plaintiffs may be sorry they got that much, because an appellate court might be somewhat shocked by the amount of the award and thus take a tougher view on the First Amendment right,” Fields said. “Judges are only human. To come in with a $115 million judgment is immediately going to create an emotional reaction.”
The verdict and the unsealing of hundreds of pages of documents late in the day capped a three week judicial circus in the sleepy St. Petersburg courtroom. Jurors, media and thousands who followed the case on Twitter and livestream video were treated to days of details about Hogan’s sex life, body part size, and images of him in thong underwear.
There was wrestling history, videos of Hogan yukking it up with Howard Stern and, most notably, how Gawker — a 12-year-old news and gossip website in New York City — does journalism differently from legacy media.
The unsealed documents will undoubtedly be key in Gawker’s appeals process. The evidence was unsealed because a group of media companies, including The Associated Press, sued for access and won.
The civil court judge in the case had ruled that the documents be sealed, but an appellate court sided with the media companies, saying they were of legitimate public interest.
A jury’s monetary award isn’t the last word. Such awards are usually appealed and are often reduced by appeals courts.
Hogan was silent Friday night as he walked out of the courthouse, clad in black and wearing sunglasses in the twilight. He didn’t speak to media, and declined to sign an autograph request from a fan.
With files from The Associated Press