ST. PETERSBURG — A jury awarded the former professional wrestler Hulk Hogan $115 million in damages Friday in an invasion of privacy lawsuit he brought against the New York-based website Gawker.
The 62-year-old ex-wrestler, outfitted in all black, burst into tears at news of the astonishingly high award, delivered after nearly six hours of jury deliberations. After hugging his attorneys, Hogan, whose real name is Terry G. Bollea, exited the courthouse, declining to speak to a scrum of reporters who had traveled from across the country for the trial.
"Mr. Bollea is exceptionally happy," said his attorney David Houston. "This is not only his victory today, but also anyone else who's been victimized by tabloid journalism."
"We're not finished yet," he said, an allusion to the punitive damages Bollea intends to seek from the same jury next week. If they find in his favor, the already large award could grow even greater.
The verdict capped a two-week trial in which attorneys for Bollea argued that Gawker had violated his right to privacy by posting a one minute and 41 second video of Bollea having sex with the wife of his former best friend, Tampa DJ Bubba the Love Sponge Clem (his real name).
The sex tape was viewed by some 2.5 million people before Gawker took it down in April of 2013, a little more than six months after it was posted. Another 5.4 million people visited the web page on which it appeared.
Bollea's attorneys maintained the video had been recorded covertly and its release had humiliated the entertainer, causing him to lose sleep and appetite.
On Friday, jurors upheld these claims and others, finding Gawker Media founder Nick Denton and formed editor A.J. Daulerio personally liable.
In a statement to the press, Denton said his legal team had already begun preparing an appeal in anticipation of an adverse verdict.
"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," he said, adding, "we expect to win this case ultimately."
Gawker's missing star witness was Clem. Bollea sued him in 2012 for recording the sex tape, but they later settled for $5,000 and Clem's pledge to support Bollea in his legal battle against Gawker.
Clem successfully fought off Gawker's attempt to force him to testify at trial, arguing that his multiple, conflicting statements under oath and to the FBI could expose him to perjury charges. Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Pamela Campbell allowed the disc jockey to plead the Fifth to avoid testimony that could incriminate him criminally, telling jurors only that he was "unavailable" to testify.
In closing arguments Friday, Bollea's attorney Kenneth Turkel described Gawker as a website run by morally debased, traffic-hungry writers who don't believe the right to privacy exists for anyone.
Pointing to an interview in which Denton said, "the supposed invasion of privacy has incredibly positive effects on society," Turkel scoffed.
"Who thinks like that? Who thinks it's a good thing to invade people's privacy? This isn't just a casual thought … it answers for you why he would do what he did to Mr. Bollea."
Providing a stark contrast to Turkel's prosecutorial approach, Gawker attorney Michael Sullivan asked jurors to remember their childhood civics classes on the reach of the First Amendment.
"We ask you to protect something that some among you may find uncomfortable," he said.
He reminded jurors that days after Gawker published the sex tape, Bollea cracked lewd jokes about it in appearances on the Howard Stern show and TMZ. In his memoir, his reality TV show "Hogan Knows Best," and on Clem's radio show, Bollea had discussed his sex life in graphic detail, making it fair game for reporters, Sullivan said, and part of the public discourse.
In his final appeal to the jury, he warned that if Bollea triumphed, "celebrities will use our courts to punish people for saying things that they frankly do not like."
Journalists need the freedom to report on celebrities "without worrying about whether those public figures are going to be happy about how they're portrayed," he said.
Contact Anna M. Phillips at email@example.com or (813) 226-3354. Follow @annamphillips.