ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Is Hulk Hogan’s courtroom cage match with Gawker being bankrolled by a high-tech billionaire with a grudge against the news-and-gossip site?
Two months after Hogan won a $140 million invasion-of-privacy verdict against Gawker for posting a sex tape of him, news reports say the pro wrestler is secretly backed by Silicon Valley venture capitalist Peter Thiel.
Thiel, who co-founded PayPal and was an early investor in Facebook, was outed as gay by a Gawker-owned website in 2007, and the Gawker empire has run a number of stories skewering Facebook.
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On Wednesday, Hogan and Gawker were back in a Florida court, where Judge Pamela Campbell denied his request for a new trial and refused to reduce the damages. Gawker vows to take the case to an appeals court.
Swirling in the background of the legal proceedings were reports in The New York Times and Forbes that Thiel is footing Hogan’s legal bills against their common enemy, Gawker. The news stories cited unidentified sources.
Thiel, whose net worth is estimated by Forbes at $2.7 billion, didn’t immediately respond to interview requests made through email or on the voicemail of a mobile phone number he previously provided to an Associated Press reporter.
Gawker reacted to the reports by saying: “We trust the appeals court will correct the outsized Florida jury verdict and reaffirm the law that protects a free and critical press, which is more embattled and important than ever.”
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Hogan’s lawyers wouldn’t comment on the Thiel story but praised the judge for denying a new trial and accused Gawker of refusing to accept responsibility for “their reprehensible behaviour and method of doing what they call journalism.”
Legal experts say there is nothing illegal – or even unethical – about someone financing a lawsuit. There are entire companies that invest in contingency claims, usually in product liability, personal injury, patent infringement and copyright cases. It is called “litigation financing.”
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But a billionaire doing it out of what may be spite? That’s a little different, experts say.
“As much as this is not at all illegal or unethical, it just smells and feels wrong,” said Scott Greenfield, a New York lawyer who is managing editor of Fault Lines, an online legal magazine. “When a rich guy can basically afford to bring down a media outlet, that has horrible social ramifications, even if the particular outfit is one that everybody hates, like Gawker.”
Gawker is counting on the case to be overturned on appeal and has not said whether it can afford the full $140 million. During the trial, Gawker’s parent company, a collection of websites called Gawker Media, was estimated to be worth $83 million.
Earlier this month, Hogan sued Gawker again, saying the website leaked sealed court documents containing a transcript that quoted him making racist remarks. After the National Enquirer published the story, the WWE pro wrestling company severed its ties with Hogan. Gawker denies it leaked the transcript.
In legal circles, attorney James Sammataro of Miami said people speculated how Hogan could afford such a large “dream team” of lawyers.
Said Miami attorney Richard Wolfe: “It sounds to me that Hulk Hogan made a smart deal by getting the right guy to finance his lawsuit.”