In 2016, Hulk Hogan, whose real name is Terry Gene Bollea, sued Gawker Media, the publisher of the tabloid website Gawker, as well as several Gawker employees and Gawker-affiliated entities after the website posted segment of a 2006 sex tape depicting Bollea having sex with Heather Clem, who was at the time the wife his friend, radio personality Bubba the Love Sponge. On Oct. 4, 2012, Gawker.com editor A.J. Daulerio published a two-minute segment of a 30-minute video, including 10 seconds of explicit sexual activity. Bollea claimed that he was unaware that he was being filmed at the time.
Bollea sued Gawker Media for $100 million in damages for invasion of privacy, infringement of personality rights, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Originally in 2013, Bollea sued Gawker for copyright infringement in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida and sought a temporary injunction with the help of lawyer Charles Harder. At that time, U.S. District Judge James D. Whittemore denied Bollea’s injunction, ruling that the validity of the copyright was in question, and due to the reality star previously putting his private life in the public eye, the publication of the video might be protected by fair use.
Following the judge’s ruling, Bollea withdrew his case in the U.S. district court and went on to sue Gawker Media in a Florida state court, where Judge Pamela Campbell granted the wrestler an injunction in 2013.
Despite the court order, Gawker announced that it would remove the post and commentary because it deemed it “risible and contemptuous of centuries of First Amendment jurisprudence.” Gawker did remove the video itself from its site, however, the website linked readers to another site hosting the video.
The 2013 injunction was stayed on appeal and denied by the appeals court in 2014, ruling that under the circumstances it was unconstitutional prior restraint on speech under the First Amendment. The website then attempted to have the suit dismissed based on that ruling, but instead the case went to trial.
Prior to the high-profile and high-stakes trial, Bollea’s attorney claimed that the privacy of Americans was at stake. Conversely, Gawker’s lawyers argued that this case would hurt the first Amendment right to free speech.
During the trial, which lasted two weeks, Gawker’s lawyers argued that Bollea made his sex life a public matter, although when writer Daulerio was cross-examined, he said that “no,” a depiction of the wrestler’s genitalia did not have any news value. Meanwhile, Bollea said in the trial that comments made during past interviews were done while in his professional wrestling character, a persona different than his own.
In March 2016, a Florida jury found Gawker Media liable, awarding the wrestler $115 million in compensatory damages, which included $60 million for emotional distress, and later $25 million in punitive damages.
Post-trial, Gawker Media filed two motions in the trial court–one to throw out the jury verdict, claiming that “key evidence was wrongly withheld” and that jury instructions on the constitutional standards for newsworthiness were improper, the other motion argued that even if the verdict stood, the amount awarded in damages should be reduced because the emotional damages awarded was excessive. In late May 2016, the trial judge denied both motions.
On June 9, 2016, Gawker filed a motion stating that it could not afford to pay the $140.1 million judgment or the $100 million appeal bond and requesting a stay of execution of judgement pending appeal.
On June 10, 2016, Gawker filed for bankruptcy and on Aug. 16, 2016 its assets were sold for $135 million at a bankruptcy auction to Univision Communications, which included six Gawker websites—Deadspin, Gizmodo, Jalopnik, Jezebel, Kotaku and Lifehacker, but not the flagship Gawker.com website. On Aug. 18, 2016, news broke that the original Gawker website would be shuttering its doors by the end of the following week, however, the site’s archive would remain online.
On Nov. 2, 2016, Gawker Media and Bollea reached a $31 million settlement, which also resulted in Gawker taking down the article in question.
In addition to the tawdry details of the sex tapes making headlines, Bollea’s financial backer was also quite newsworthy. Billionaire Peter Thiel, a co-founder of Paypal and Facebook board member, shelled out $10 million to finance lawsuits against Gawker Media, most notable Bollea’s lawsuit. He said his support of Bollea was “one of my greater philanthropic things that I’ve done.” It should be noted that Gawker had published an article outing Thiel as gay in 2007.