For most of his adult life, the camera has been Hulk Hogan’s best friend, capturing him body slamming opponents to the mat in the wrestling ring, spinning, glaring and taunting all who might try to take him on.
But the image of the wrestling star was far less flattering when a grainy sex tape of Hogan in bed with a friend’s wife surfaced on Gawker, the popular online media website.
When attorneys for Hogan and Gawker clashed over publication of the video, it was perhaps inevitable that it would all be dragged into a courtroom and explode into a nearly over-the-top mash-up of celebrity, sex and constitutionality.
“What’s disturbing about Gawker isn’t what they do in a vacuum,” Hogan’s attorney Kenneth Turkel said at the close of the two-week civil trial. “It’s how proud they are of it.”
Hogan, whose given name is Terry Bollea, claimed it was an invasion of privacy and sought $100 million in damages to help right those alleged wrongs.
The jury ended up giving him even more, awarding $60 million in damages for emotional distress and $55 million in punitive damages, though the jury will not determine until next week who is responsible for paying.
The verdict came down in Hogan’s favor on all counts, upholding his claim that by posting the video, Gawker publicly disclosed private information, intentionally caused him emotional distress, acted recklessly and violated his reasonable expectation of privacy in the bedroom where the video was recorded.
“This is not only his victory today, but anyone else who’s been victimized by tabloid journalism,” another Hogan attorney, David Houston, told a horde of reporters outside the Pinellas County Courthouse.
Nick Denton, Gawker Media’s founder and president, watched quietly as the jury’s decision was read aloud to those in court, alongside codefendent Albert J. Daulerio, editor in chief of Gawker.com at the time the sex video was published.
Denton addressed reporters as he stepped out of court, flanked by more than half a dozen lawyers, who said they will appeal the decision, in part because one of the key witnesses--the friend whose wife Hogan was filmed with--did not testify.
“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 the case,” Denton said in a prepared statement.
“I want to thank our lawyers for their outstanding work and am confident that we would have prevailed at trial if we had been allowed to present the full case to the jury. That’s why we feel very positive about the appeal that we have already begun preparing, as we expect to win this case ultimately.”
Gawker’s response during the trial might best be summed up this way: Give us a break.
Attorneys for the website challenged jurors to watch the 1-minute, 41-second video, saying it barely qualified as a sex tape, and pointed out that gossip websites TMZ and TheDirty.com published stills from the video months before Gawker posted the footage.
“Who among us thinks it’s a good idea to send a serious message through TMZ?” said Michael Sullivan, an attorney for Gawker. “TMZ is the place a celebrity goes to get even more attention for a sex tape.”
Sullivan said although the video received 2.5 million views, there was little financial benefit for Gawker.
“There was no sustained Hulk effect on the site’s traffic,” Sullivan said.
But in the end, it wasn’t enough to convince a jury in what is essentially Hogan’s hometown.
During the trial, Hogan testified that the video was secretly recorded in 2007, at a time he was “depressed” and had agreed at a friend’s urging to have sex with that man’s wife.
The friend, Tampa Bay shock jock Bubba “the Love Sponge” Clem, coaxed Hogan into sleeping with his wife, the wrestler’s attorneys said.
Clem was never called to testify, probably because he’d indicated he would invoke his 5th Amendment right not to talk.
Hogan sued Clem after the tape was released, and the case was settled out of court for an estimated $5,000.
Why the video was shot and how it was leaked to the media remained unanswered questions, along with a cache of documents that remained sealed during the trial, only heightening speculation about what salacious details they might hold. When they were unsealed Friday, there were no bombshells.
The central theme of the wrestler’s case was the separation he saw between the attention-seeking Hulk Hogan character and Terry Bollea, the regular guy who coveted his private time. When the sex tape was shot, he was in full Terry Bollea mode.
“This case defines reckless disregard and Gawker embodies it here in this case,” Turkel told jurors.
At one point, Daulerio was questioned about a previous video deposition in which he tried to explain the context in which material was newsworthy.
“Can you imagine a situation where a celebrity sex tape would not be newsworthy?” Hogan attorney Douglas E. Mirell asked.
“If they were a child,” Daulerio replied.
“Under what age?” the lawyer pressed.
Neuhaus is a special correspondent