On March 18, 2016, a jury in Florida awarded former professional wrestler and "Mr. Nanny" actor, Hulk Hogan, $115 million in damages as part of a lawsuit he brought against media company Gawker. Three days later, the same jury awarded Hulk an additional $25 million in punitive damages, bringing the total judgment to $140 million. Lots of people, including Gawker's lawyers and employees, assumed that this number would be reduced significantly upon appeal. Well, on May 25, a Florida judge upheld the full $140 million judgment. OUCH.
In case you have no idea what this lawsuit is about, here's a very quick recap:
Hulk Hogan complained to a friend that he was feeling depressed after finding out that his wife was dating a much younger man. To make him feel better, the friend told Hulk, he should have sex with his wife in their bedroom. The friend, radio shock-jock Bubba The Love Sponge, secretly hid a camera and microphone in the room to film the NSFW encounter. At some point later, clips from the sex tape were posted on Gawker.com. The clips were posted, despite pleas from Hulk's legal team that made it clear the footage was taken without his permission. Long story short, Hulk sued. His multi-million dollar legal bills were covered by Facebook Venture Capitalist Peter ThielThiel, who was angry at Gawker, reportedly for outing him as a gay man years earlier, without his permission. Gawker claimed that posting the Hogan video was free speech. A jury disagreed. In a BIG way.
The fallout from the lawsuit has been dramatic. Gawker CEO Nick Denton is PERSONALLY liable for the judgment. That means if the company can't pay down the damages by selling assets, Nick has to cover the difference from his personal bank account. And even if Gawker is able to pay down its entire portion of the damages, Denton is still PERSONALLY liable for $10 million of the total judgement. He was recently forced to rent out his NYC condo, in order to raise money.
The fallout continued today, when it was revealed that Gawker has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Gawker also revealed that it is actively seeking bids for various assets. A publishing company called Ziff Davis has reportedly offered $100 million. Interestingly, Ziff Davis indicated that it was interested in Gawker-owned sites Jezebel.com and Gizmodo.com. Notice Gawker.com itself was not mentioned. Depending on how Gawker Media is structured, each site could be its own separate legal entity (LLC most likely) and therefore all liabilities would rest with each individual property.
In the bankruptcy filing, Gawker revealed that it has assets in the range of $50 – $100 million and liabilities in the range of $100 – $500 million (most of which is attributed to the lawsuit).
On the flip side!
There is a chance things could work out in Denton's favor… eventually and with a lot of luck. Now that Gawker Media has filed for bankruptcy, there's a possibility that a judge in New York (where the filing was made) will drastically reduce the $140 million judgement. If that were to happen after Denton had raised a bunch of money by selling a few assets, there's a scenario where he could simply pay off Hogan and keep running Gawker. He would still need to pay down that $10 million personal debt, but maybe that's doable.
For his part, Hulk Hogan has made it clear that he is determined to get paid the full $140 million, regardless of the bankruptcy filing. No word on whether or not the Hulkster will have to reimburse Peter Thiel for the millions in legal fees that were covered on his behalf.
And in one final interesting twist, an anonymous source close to Gawker now claims that the media company is exploring a lawsuit against Peter Thiel, that would seek damages for "tortious interfering, racketeering and other potential claims."