Hulk Hogan’s $156m award: Gawker site may prevail in court

NEW YORK • The US$115 million (S$156 million) a Florida jury awarded to Hulk Hogan last Friday may seem like a big blow to the website Gawker, but the media company could ultimately prevail in its court battle with the flamboyant wrestler, legal experts say.

Hogan had sued the website for posting a 2012 video clip featuring him having sex with the wife of his then-best friend, radio shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge Clem.

Both sides cast the case as a crucial test of the balance between the right to privacy and freedom of the press in the digital age, when a celebrity sex tape can reach millions of viewers with one click of a button.

"The jury's decision is somewhat of a black box," said Dr Mary-Rose Papandrea, a University of North Carolina law professor who previously represented the National Enquirer, a tabloid known for its aggressive reporting on celebrity scandals. "It will be much more interesting and important as a legal issue to see what the appellate court says."

Hogan had argued that Gawker ignored basic journalistic ethics by failing to contact him before publishing and violated his privacy by including several seconds of explicit sexual activity in the video excerpt.

"What's disturbing about Gawker isn't what they do in a vacuum," said Mr Kenneth Turkel, one of Hogan's lawyers, during his closing argument. "It's how proud they are of it."

Gawker countered that Hogan's own penchant for publicly describing his sex life in detail had made the sex tape fair game.

Hogan, whose real name is Terry Bollea, testified that he made those comments while in character, not as part of his real-life persona.

Gawker has at least some reason to feel more optimistic about its chances on appeal. In 2014, the Florida Second District Court threw out an injunction requiring it to take down the Hogan video that the trial judge had granted.

Also, Dr Clay Calvert, a professor of law and mass communications at the University of Florida, said a verdict that large was almost certain to be pared back on appeal, if not reversed. "Juries generally do not like the media," he said after the verdict. "The appellate court is a little more neutral."

The site appeared prepared for a loss at trial.

Even before the verdict, Gawker said the judge had kept the jury from hearing crucial prior statements by Clem, the wrestler's former friend, and suggested it was already thinking about its appeal.

"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," the site's founder Nick Denton said after the verdict.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 21, 2016, with the headline 'Gawker site may prevail in court'. Print Edition | Subscribe