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March 21, 2016updated 23 Aug 2022 6:44pm

£80m Hulk Hogan sex tape privacy win versus Gawker ‘a shift in American free press law’

By PA Media Lawyer

A jury has awarded former professional wrestler Hulk Hogan $115 (£80mi) in his sex tape privacy lawsuit against Gawker Media.

The jurors in Florida reached a decision less than six hours after they began deliberations on Friday last week. The trial lasted two weeks and Hogan wept as the verdict was read.

The jury will return to court on today to award punitive damages.

Moments after the verdict, Gawker founder Nick Denton said he would appeal, based on evidence that was not introduced in court, the Associated Press (AP) news agency reported.

"Given the key evidence and the most important witness in this case were withheld from the jury, we all knew the appeals court would need to
resolve this case," he said.

Hogan's legal team said in a statement: "We're exceptionally happy with the verdict. We think it represents a statement as to the public's disgust with the invasion of privacy disguised as journalism. The verdict says no more."

Hogan, whose real name is Terry Bollea, sued Gawker for posting a video of him having sex with his former best friend's wife, claiming that the posting, made in 2012, violated his privacy.

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First Amendment experts, media lawyers and privacy advocates watched the case closely.

Samantha Barbas, a law professor at the University of Buffalo and the author of The Laws Of Image, which focuses on the history of libel and privacy, said: "It's a huge damage award, and just the idea that a celebrity has a right to privacy that outweighs freedom of the press and the public's right to know, that's a huge shift in American free press law.

"It could potentially be a turning point in law."

The verdict and the unsealing of hundreds of pages of documents late in the day capped a three-week judicial circus in the sleepy St Petersburg courtroom.

Jurors, media and thousands who followed the case on Twitter and live video were treated to days of details about Hogan's sex life, body part size, and images of him in thong underwear.

There were also details of how Gawker – a 12-year-old news and gossip website based in New York City- does journalism differently from legacy media.

The unsealed documents will be key in Gawker's appeals process.

The evidence was unsealed because a group of media companies sued for access and won. The civil court judge in the case had ruled that the documents should be sealed, but an appellate court sided with the media companies, saying they were of legitimate public interest.

The documents outline allegations, facts and conflicting testimony, including assertions that Hogan filed the lawsuit to hide racist comments made on video, that the woman with whom Hogan had sex with knew it was being filmed, and that Hogan participated in an FBI investigation and sting because he was a victim of extortion.

Earlier, in spirited closing arguments, lawyers for Hogan and Gawker discussed themes of personal life versus celebrity and freedom of speech versus the right to privacy.

Hogan's lawyers told jurors this was the core of the case: "Gawker took a secretly recorded sex tape and put it on the internet."

They said Hogan did not consent to the video, that Gawker did not follow usual journalism procedures before posting it and that the video was not newsworthy. Gawker did not try to contact Hogan or the woman in the video, nor did the website contact the woman's husband, DJ Bubba The Love Sponge Clem, who recorded the video.

Gawker's lawyers told the jury the video is "not like a real celebrity sex tape" and urged them to watch the video, which contains nine seconds of sexual content.

They pointed out that news of the sex tape first appeared on at least two websites, TMZ and The Dirty. Hogan went on TMZ's TV programme to talk about it, and later appeared on the Howard Stern show.

"He has consistently chosen to put his private life out there, for public consumption," said lawyer Michael Sullivan.

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