Jury sends ‘message verdict’ with Hulk Hogan win
Attorney Joe Richardson with commentary on why the Hulk Hogan case reminds us that laws are meant to protect everyone, even publicity seekers.
Jurors say Hulk Hogan $140 million award is about protecting right-to-privacy
A jury in Florida recently awarded wrestler Hulk Hogan a $115 million verdict against Gawker Media, who posted a portion of a video featuring Hogan and his former best friend Bubba Clem’s wife, Heather Clem. In the punitive damages phase, the jury gave another $25 million to Hogan, making the Gawker the victim of a $140 million body slam on Hogan’s behalf. Hogan, (legal name Terry Bollea), brought the lawsuit because the sex session was apparently recorded without his or Heather Clem’s knowledge.
The 4th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states there is a right of people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, alluding to the right to privacy. When individuals have a reasonable expectation of privacy (a related concept), there is a constitutional violation when that privacy is invaded.
People cannot have a reasonable expectation of privacy as to things that are held out to be public. Certainly, people that are public figures can have less of an expectation of privacy than other people. The question of when aspects of a public figure’s life become private is a real one and came into sharp focus in this case.
Gawker sought to present evidence (though the testimony of Bubba Clem) that, in fact, Hogan and/or Heather Clem did know they were being videotaped. Therefore, there would be no expectation of privacy. More, in a dose of attempted character assassination, Gawker sought to make the case about the fact that Hogan publicly talked about his sex life all the time, making this sex session newsworthy.
Gawker promises an appeal, arguing that the judge’s failure to allow Clem’s testimony is reversible error. Whether the jury would have come out differently had Bubba Clem testified is not clear, particularly when one considers that Clem would have every reason to testify in a way that would be unfavorable to Hogan.
This case reminds us that laws are meant to protect everyone, whether or not they are publicity seekers. Gawker made quite a leap when it assumed that the sex tape would be newsworthy simply because Hogan talks about his sex life publicly. Even if one assumes Hogan knew he was being filmed, there are plenty of people that videotape “private” things; even “public” figures do it. Their public status does not mean that they lose the right to say what makes it onto the internet and what doesn’t.
Did Hulk Hogan “need” a $115 million verdict? Maybe not. However, jurors have stated in post-trial interviews that they wanted to send a message about how important privacy actually is. If you believe that the Gawkers of the world may proceed a bit more carefully next time in a similar situation, then perhaps the jury’s point is made.