Court Vacates Punitive Damages in Hustler Right of Publicity Case

By Robyn Hagan Cain on May 02, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Hustler this week in a lawsuit over the magazine's decision to print 20-year-old nude photos of slain former-wrestler Nancy Toffoloni Benoit months after her husband, Chris Benoit, killed her.

Last year, a jury hit Hustler with $19.6 million in punitive damages for publishing the pics, according to the First Amendment Center. A federal judge later reduced the award to $250,000 to comply with a Georgia damages cap, and awarded Nancy's family $125,000 in compensatory damages.

This week, the Eleventh Circuit vacated the $250,000 punitive damages award.

This is the second time that the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals has heard this case. Nancy's family previously appealed to the Eleventh Circuit to reinstate the multi-million dollar judgment, while Hustler challenged the court's decision to allow the case proceed to trial in the first place.
Hustler claimed that the First Amendment should protect the publication from right of publicity liability because the murder made Nancy a newsworthy figure.

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Hustler in 2009, noting, "The Georgia courts have never held, nor do we believe that they would hold, that if one is the victim of an infamous murder, one's entire life is rendered the legitimate subject of public scrutiny."

This week, the Eleventh Circuit remanded the case to the district court to vacate the punitive damages award to the Toffoloni family.

While the Atlanta-based court maintained its position that the photographs were not newsworthy, it concluded that Hustler and its parent company, LFP, reasonably believed at the time that the photographs were newsworthy; that belief precluded a finding of premeditation or knowledge that
LFP's acts would violate Benoit's right of publicity.

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with LFP that no reasonable jury could find clear and convincing evidence to support the imposition of punitive damages because there was substantial, consistent, and uncontroverted testimony from numerous LFP employees -- including Hustler-owner Larry Flynt -- showing that they honestly and reasonably believed at the time that the
photographs fit under the newsworthiness exception to the right of publicity.

(Flynt testified that LFP would not have run the photographs if it thought that the magazine needed permission.)

A defendant operating under an innocent mistake cannot be held liable for punitive damages, so the punitive damages judgment was vacated.

Related Resources:

Copied to clipboard