Rolling Stone Rolls With Early Favorable Rulings

by Robins Kaplan LLP
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Rolling Stone is not the first media outlet to defend itself in a multi-million dollar trial this year. Gawker Media was recently hit with a $140 million judgment resulting from a suit by Terry Bollea (a.k.a. Hulk Hogan) for invasion of privacy, forcing Gawker into bankruptcy after the judgment in March. Rolling Stone is working zealously to prevent a similar predicament, on top of trying to keep its business above water as readership for print media steadily declines. Rolling Stone already pays over $14 million per year on debt from a 2006 loan; the magazine borrowed $300 million to buy back shares in US Weekly that it had sold to Disney. With the pending suit, an adverse judgment could add another $8 million of liabilities to its balance sheet.

The defamation trial against Rolling Stone is underway in Charlottesville, Virginia. Nicole Eramo, former University of Virginia associate dean of students sued Rolling Stone and reporter, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, for its portrayal of her in a November 2014 story about the alleged sexual assault of an anonymous student, “Jackie.” “Jackie” created a fictitious story about being gang raped by seven members of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity in an initiation ritual. Ensuing police investigations and media reports discredited Jackie’s claims driving the magazine to retract its story in April 2015. Eramo took the stand in federal court, claiming that the article portrayed her as indifferent to rape claims.

A couple key decisions have been made in this contentious battle so far. First, the judge deemed Eramo to be a public figure; consequently, she and her lawyers must prove that Rolling Stone and Erdely acted with actual malice- a high burden. In other words, Eramo must prove that defendants knew the story was false or, she must prove that they acted with reckless disregard for whether the story was true or false. Also, the judge granted Rolling Stone’s emergency motion a week before trial, barring Eramo and her lawyers from using deposition videos of Erdely that Eramo leaked to ABC’s 20/20.

“Jackie” will not testify at trial but excerpts from her previously sealed video deposition will be played for the jury. On the second day of trial, an attorney for the plaintiff read excerpts from the deposition, and more recently, deposition video was played in which “Jackie” stated that the story she told Erdely was what she believed “to be true at the time.” The video will not be released to members of the public.

Eramo seeks compensatory damages of not less than $7.5 million; initially, she also sought punitive damages of not less than $350 thousand but has since withdrawn that request. Eramo claims that as a direct and proximate result of the false story, she has suffered damages to her reputation, embarrassment, humiliation, and emotional distress. The trial is already rich with evidence and crucial rulings – the fate of the parties soon to be revealed but high stakes for all those involved.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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