Billionaire eBay founder Pierre Omidyar is planning to help Gawker’s appeal of a $140 million jury award to former wrestler Hulk Hogan in a lawsuit secretly funded by billionaire PayPal founder Peter Thiel.
In what is shaping up to be the “Battle of the Billionaires,” according to Forbes, Omidyar’s First Look Media online news organization is reaching out to other media organizations to file amicus curiae (“friend of the court”)briefs in support of Gawker’s appeal, based on the First Amendment right to freedom of the press.
Hogan, whose real name is Terry Gene Bollea, sued Gawker for invasion of privacy after it published an excerpt of a tape showing Hogan having sexual intercourse with Heather Cole, the then-wife of his best friend, Tampa-area radio shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge.
The existence of the sex tape was also reported by TMZ and The Dirty by the time that Gawker had published it alongside an A.J. Daulerio essay about celebrity sex tapes.
The Nick Denton-owned Gawker attempted to argue that it was within its First Amendment rights to decide what was newsworthy, but after a two-week trial that ended in March, a jury decided that Hogan’s privacy rights were more important. The jury accessed Gawker $115 million in compensatory damages and $25 million more for punitive damages.
At the May 24 hearing, Gawker’s attorney urged asked the judge for a “remittitur,” reducing or throwing out a jury verdict, and compared the jury’s damages determination to awards against tobacco companies in trials over smoking deaths. He stated the award was “one of the largest in Florida’s history and grossly excessive compared to the conduct at issue.”
But in the course of the battle, it was revealed that PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel was bankrolling the Hogan lawsuit.
Denton posted an open letter to Thiel after the May 24 hearing: “Your revenge has been served well, cold and (until now) anonymously.” Denton was referring to the 2007 Gawker story, “Peter Thiel is totally gay, people,” which reportedly angered Thiel.
Denton added: “You admit you have been planning the punishment of Gawker and its writers for years, and that you have so far spent $10 million to fund litigation against the company. Charles Harder, the Hollywood plaintiff’s lawyer who has marshaled your legal campaign, is representing not just the wrestler Hulk Hogan on your behalf, but two other subjects of stories in suits against Gawker and its editorial staff.”
Thiel is estimated by Forbes to have a net worth of $2.8 billion. He co-founded and was CEO of PayPal; was the first outside investor in Facebook, and sits on its Board of Directors; and co-founded and is Chairman of Palantir.
Omidyar is worth $7.7 billion, according to Forbes. He founded and was Chairman of the eBay auction site from 1998 to 2015. In 2002, Omidyar led the acquisition of PayPal in 2002 for $1.5 billion.
There is lot of speculation that Thiel and Omidyar have “bad blood.” Omidyar is a crusading liberal and philanthropist who doesn’t see eye-to-eye with Thiel, a free-market libertarian who is backing Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency.
Omidyar tweeted on May 24, “So Thiel agrees with Trump’s plan to muzzle press that criticizes government, obviously. That’s why he supports him?”
The New York Post reported after the Florida judge refused to cut the Gawker judgement: “Denton hired investment bank Houlihan Lokey to advise him on the valuation of the cash-hungry company in the event that he needs to sell it to pay damages to Hogan.”