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Florida Jury Hands Hulk Hogan a $115 Million Victory in the Gawker Sex Tape Trial

The Web publisher expected to lose, but it was hoping to avoid a huge award.

Boyzell Hosey
Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

Round one in the Hulk Hogan/Gawker sex tape trial goes to the wrestler: A Florida jury found decisively in his favor, and says the website owes him at least $115 million in damages.

The jury will likely increase the award next week, when it plans to announce punitive damages in the case, which stems from Gawker’s 2012 publication of an excerpt of a sex tape featuring Hogan.

This is the worst-case scenario that Gawker Media owner Nick Denton had sketched out last summer, when the case was first supposed to go to trial.

Denton and his legal team have said, over and over, that they assumed they would lose the first round of the privacy case, and would then have to appeal it.

But they were hoping that damages would be much less than the $100 million that Terry Bollea — the wrestler who performs as Hogan — was seeking. Gawker had previously tried to settle the case with Hogan’s team by offering a payout of several million dollars.

The prospect of a giant award was one of the reasons Denton sold a stake in his company to Columbus Nova Technology Partners earlier this year — the first time he has ever taken outside investment.

Here’s Denton’s comment, sent via a PR rep, which echoed a comment Gawker had sent out this afternoon, before the verdict came in: “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. 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.”

The case itself is relatively straightforward: Gawker Media has argued that it had the right to show a video of Hogan having sex with Heather Cole, who at the time of the taping was married to radio broadcaster Bubba “The Love Sponge” Clem, because the video itself was newsworthy and Hogan was a public figure.

And Hogan’s legal team has argued that showing the tape had no journalistic value and invaded his privacy.

That’s also a good summary of the meta conversation surrounding the trial: In an age when anyone with access to the Internet is a publisher, how do you balance the right to free speech with the right of privacy?

Throughout the week, there’s also been a private conversation going on among media types who were following the case closely and talking about it in person and in Slack rooms. Some worried about the effects of a verdict against Gawker, and others expressed more than a little schadenfreude about the prospect of seeing Denton and the site slapped down.

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