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Hogan versus Gawker: Free speech can be costly

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Gawker has been ordered to pay an astonishing $140 million in cumulative damages to the former US wrestling icon

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Hulk Hogan has been awarded a staggering $140m (£98m) in damages in his sex tape lawsuit against online media outfit Gawker, highlighting that there can be a costly price to pay for free speech across the pond.

Late last week, a Florida jury awarded Hogan — whose real name is Terry Bollea — $115m (£80m) for economic injuries and emotional distress, after Gawker published a secret recording of the former professional wrestler having sex with his friend’s wife, back in 2012.

Hogan’s legal team successfully argued that the New York-based site had violated his privacy and the video of the US icon was not of a newsworthy nature.

Things went from bad to worse for Gawker on Monday, as the same jury of four women and two men returned to court to award a further $25m (£17.5m) to Hogan in punitive damages, taking the cumulative figure to an eye-watering $140m (£98m).

Having heard the site’s owner Nick Denton was worth in excess of $121m (£85m) and Gawker itself valued at $83m (£58m), the jury decided to add further financial repercussions.

According to Nigel Tait — managing-partner at London outfit Carter-Ruck — the US is quickly becoming the true home of libel, and it would appear this latest case only reaffirms his argument.

Penning an article for the Press Gazette last summer, Tait says London is losing its crown as a hotbed for libel proceedings. The top lawyer suggests that the days of a “claimant-friendly jury” are long gone, pointing out that between 2004 and 2008 the average award for damages was just under £38,000. A far cry from the $2.84m (£1.9m) award average dished out across the pond.

Tait — whose firm is renowned for its libel work — says that the number of claims associated with this area of the law has dropped, and will continue to do so since the introduction of the “defendant-friendly Defamation Act in 2014”.

However, across the pond, much larger sums in damages are regularly dished out, thanks to lawyers successfully tugging on the heartstrings of juries. According to Tait, $400m (£280m) was handed out by way of compensation in 2014 alone.

Hogan, who attended the two-week trial wearing his trademark bandana, was brought to tears when the verdict was announced last week. But there may yet be another twist in this saga: despite the mammoth financial award, Gawker’s general counsel Heather Dietrick remained positive in the wake of the result, claiming in a statement that the site was confident that it would be successful in appeal.

Whatever the final outcome, the message is clear. The US isn’t as free speech friendly as we might assume.