CHICAGO (CN) - A Chicago attorney acquitted of abducting and sexually assaulting a woman he met via Craigslist can sue Gawker Media for defamation, the Seventh Circuit ruled.
Gawker Media declared bankruptcy in June and shut downGawker.com after a jury awarded Hulk Hogan $140 million in damages in an invasion of privacy case over its publication of a sex tape.
The embattled company now faces another lawsuit from a Chicago attorney acquitted of rape.
Meanith Huon was charged after a woman told police he had abducted her after she responded to a Craigslist ad he placed seeking to hire promotional models.
The woman said Huon fondled her and forced her to perform oral sex on him, before she jumped from his moving car.
But the jury was not convinced. It acquitted Huon on two counts of sexual assault after deliberating for two hours.
Huon then sued Above the Law, a legal blog, for its coverage of his criminal trial.
Above the Law published an article entitled "Rape Potpourri," by Elie Mystal, which discussed Huon's case, as well as the arrest of former New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor on the basis of a rape allegation. The article generated over 100 comments from users.
After Huon filed his defamation suit, the blog Jezebel.com, then owned by Gawker Media, picked up the story, and reported the lawsuit in an article entitled, "Acquitted Rapist Sues Blogger for Calling Him Serial Rapist." This article generated over 80 comments, some from alleged Gawker employees, and prompted Huon to add Gawker as a defendant.
Huon settled with Above the Law out of court, but appealed the ruling dismissing his claims against Gawker Media. Politico reported in June that Huon seeks at least $100 million in damages from Gawker.
On Monday, the Seventh Circuit found that Jezebel fairly reported the rape allegations and trial proceedings against Huon.
"The fair report privilege applies to the article's references to consent and the bartender's testimony, since they appear to accurately capture the gist of what occurred at the trial," Judge Ann Claire Williams said, writing for the three-judge panel.
However, Huon's claim that Gawker employees either posted defamatory comments themselves, or "choreographed" the content of the comments to escalate the dialogue, was not "farfetched," Williams found.
"Huon's fourth amended complaint devotes over four pages to detailing Gawker's alleged activities. Critically, the complaint hints at why Gawker employees might have anonymously authored comments, alleging that increasing the defamatory nature of comments can increase traffic to Gawker's websites, which can in turn enhance the attractiveness of Gawker's commenting system for prospective advertisers," Williams said.
One of the comments on the Gawker post reads, "Fuck this 'he's been acquitted' noise. He's a rapist alright, so we may as well call him one."
Williams said, "This comment unequivocally accuses Huon of committing a crime (rape), and nothing in its context suggests it is more appropriately viewed as mere name-calling or stylistic exaggeration. So Huon's defamation per se claim as to this comment may proceed."
In September, Univision Communications, the media organization that bought news websites from the now-bankrupt Gawker Media, decided to remove the Huon story associated with this lawsuit. It is unclear how that decision will impact Huon's suit.