Tuesday, February 20, 2018
News Roundup

Celebrity website Gawker wins delay in Hulk Hogan sex tape trial

ST. PETERSBURG — An appellate court's ruling has delayed next week's scheduled start of the highly anticipated trial between former pro wrestler Hulk Hogan and New York-based media company Gawker.

In a 14-page decision handed down Thursday, the 2nd District Court of Appeal overturned a Pinellas circuit judge's order setting the trial for Monday, saying that the civil trial could not begin on that date because of several technical violations.

The next court date was set over three months from now, Oct. 20. It remains unclear when a trial will be held, delaying Hogan and Gawker's legal showdown.

The case resolves around a roughly 30-minute video of Hogan, whose real name is Terry Bollea, having sex with the former wife of his then-best friend, Tampa shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge Clem. Recorded in 2006 by Clem, who maintains Bollea did not know he was being filmed, the video surfaced in 2012.

Gawker published an excerpt online — 1 minute and 41 seconds, to be exact — and a few weeks later Bollea sued, claiming the website had violated his privacy and owed him $100 million in damages.

In its decision, the court wrote that Pinellas Circuit Judge Pamela Campbell rushed the trial date, setting it earlier than Florida law allows.

State law "prescribes a minimum interval of fifty days between service of the last pleading and commencement of the trial," the court wrote. In order to make a July 6 start date feasible, Bollea's lawyers would have had to file a notice earlier than they did, and Campbell would have had to set a trial date by June 6.

"None of that happened, of course," the court wrote.

This is not the first time the appellate court has intervened in the case at Gawker's request to reverse one of Campbell's decisions.

Last year, after the judge ordered Gawker to remove the video and a written narrative from its site, attorneys for the company appealed to the 2nd District Court of Appeal, which quashed Campbell's order and puzzled over her reasoning.

"It is not clear from the hearing transcript, and certainly not from the order, why the circuit court granted the motion for temporary injunction," the appellate court wrote. "It appears the court believed Mr. Bollea's right to privacy was insurmountable."

The court's decision on Thursday is a victory for Gawker, which had sought the delay. At the same time that the website's lawyers were poised to go to trial against Bollea, they have been distracted by a separate fight with the FBI over access to evidence related to the agency's now-closed investigation into the Bollea sex tape.

The trial's postponement gives them weeks, possibly months, to continue their efforts to extract information from the agency, which they believe is vital to proving that Bollea knew he was being filmed.

After a federal judge ordered the agency to release much of its investigation to Gawker, the FBI turned over about 780 documents and two audio recordings. It also produced three videos, each of which the agency says shows Bollea having sex with Clem's then-wife, Heather Cole.

Although that seemed like a win for Gawker, the company's attorneys are now arguing that there are major problems with the videos. At a hearing in federal court on Thursday, Gawker attorney Seth Berlin said that one DVD was incomplete, while another played normally for 15 minutes before suddenly switching, "at a key moment," to audio from a different recording.

Berlin did not elaborate and the videos are confidential, but in an earlier hearing, attorneys hinted at an "offensive language issue" on one of the videos that Gawker may be seeking to expose.

Bollea attorney Charles Harder accused Gawker of creating a "sideshow" by pursuing information from the FBI's investigation into a supposed extortion attempt against Bollea. The judge has already barred the videos from being introduced at trial, he said, rendering Gawker's efforts pointless.

Harder has previously argued that the video recordings on the DVDs can't be trusted because the FBI got them from an alleged extortionist.

"Even if there is another third DVD, which allegedly has the things that they have been speculating might be on there, it could be an extortionist manipulating the audio through an impersonator," he said at a hearing this week, "or who knows what."

Contact Anna M. Phillips at (813) 226-3354 or [email protected] Follow @annamphillips.

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