Could Hulk Hogan Verdict Mean the End of Gawker?

Hulk Hogan and Nick Denton
From left: Hulk Hogan and Nick Denton

Pro wrestler Hulk Hogan has won $115 million in damages from Gawker Media in his suit for invasion of privacy, an amount that could threaten the existence of gay entrepreneur Nick Denton’s company.

A jury in St. Petersburg, Fla., turned in the verdict Friday, CNN reports. Hogan had sued the company after its flagship site, Gawker, in 2012 posted a two-minute clip of a tape showing him having sex with his best friend’s wife. Denton and then-editor A.J. Daulerio were also named in the suit.

Denton immediately released a statement saying the defendants will appeal the verdict, and his lawyers had earlier noted that some evidence that was not available to the trial jury will be available at the appeal. “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,” Denton said in the statement. He expressed confidence in winning on appeal.

He had suggested last year that such a large award would put Gawker Media in jeopardy. “We don’t keep $100 million in the bank,” he told The New York Times in June.

The award could grow even larger. The $115 million includes $55 million for economic injuries and $60 million for emotional distress, but the jury will meet next week to consider punitive damages, CNN reports.

The trial hinged on the balance between free speech and privacy rights. “I believe in total freedom and information transparency,” Denton said in a taped deposition played for the jury, according to The Hollywood Reporter. “I’m an extremist when it comes to that.” But Hogan’s lawyer, Ken Turkel, pointed out to the jury that the case “is not about political speech.”

In a move to help strengthen Gawker Media’s finances in the face of the Hogan suit, the company recently took on its first outside investor, with investment firm Columbus Nova Technology Partners buying a minority stake, the size of which was not disclosed. In announcing the investment in January, Denton said Gawker and the company’s other sites, such as Jezebel and Deadspin, would retain editorial independence. “We will write the stories that stodgier media organizations won’t write,” he told the Times. In November he had announced that Gawker would be shifting its focus to politics rather than celebrity gossip.

The company was widely criticized last summer when Gawker posted a story that outed a magazine executive by reporting that he sought a sexual encounter with a gay-porn star. The story was denounced as “gay-shaming” on a site owned by a gay man. Denton soon took down the post and apologized for it.