RICHMOND, Va.—Rolling Stone magazine, its publisher and a reporter defamed a University of Virginia administrator who sued them for $7.5 million over a discredited story about a gang rape at a fraternity house, a federal jury said Friday.
The 10-member jury in Charlottesville sided with administrator Nicole Eramo, who claimed the article portrayed her as a villain. Jurors found that journalist Sabrina Rubin Erdely was responsible for libel, with actual malice, and that Rolling Stone and its publisher were also responsible for defaming Eramo.
Eramo claimed the November 2014 article falsely said she discouraged the woman identified only as Jackie from reporting the incident to police. A police investigation found no evidence to back up Jackie’s claims about being raped.
Rolling Stone‘s attorneys contended during the trial that Jackie appeared to be an entirely credible source and that the reporter fell victim to an elaborate ruse. The magazine stood by its criticism of the university’s handling of sexual assault cases despite problems with Jackie’s story.
In a statement Friday, the magazine apologized to Eramo and others impacted by the article.
“It is our deep hope that our failings do not deflect from the pervasive issues discussed in the piece, and that reporting on sexual assault cases ultimately results in campus policies that better protect our students,” the magazine said.
Libby Locke, an attorney for Eramo, told media outlets her client felt vindicated by the jury’s decision.
“It feels very good to have a jury of Nicole’s peers come back and vindicate what we have known from day one and so we are very pleased,” Locke said, according to WVIR-TV.
Locke did not immediately respond to messages from The Associated Press.
Because the judge determined that Eramo was a public figure, she had to prove Rolling Stone made statements with “actual malice,” meaning it knew that what it was writing about her was false or entertained serious doubts as to whether it might be true.
The jury found that Erdely acted with actual malice on six claims: two statements in the article and four statements to media outlets after the story was published. In one instance, Erdely wrote in the story that Eramo had a “nonreaction” when she heard from Jackie that two other women were also gang raped at the same fraternity at the university.
Jurors also found that the decision by Rolling Stone and Wenner Media, the magazine’s publisher, to post the story on Dec. 5, 2014—with an editor’s note acknowledging problems with Jackie’s account—counted as “republishing” the debunked story. Jurors concluded that the publisher and magazine didn’t act with actual malice when the story was originally published but did when it was republished.
The magazine did not officially retract the story and remove it from its website until the following April.
Jurors will decide later how much to award Eramo in damages. Rolling Stone has agreed to cover Erdely’s legal costs and any damages levied against her.
Washington-based media and First Amendment attorney Bruce W. Sanford said the verdict didn’t surprise him.
“At the heart of every libel case is the journalism and this was fundamentally flawed journalism,” Sanford said. He said the two sides could reach a settlement before the case goes to the damages phase, or even after that phase concludes.
The jury decision is the latest in a year that brought large judgments against other media outlets.
In March, former pro wrestler Hulk Hogan won a $140 million invasion-of-privacy verdict against Gawker for posting a sex tape of him. Gawker settled with Hogan for $31 million this month.
Last month The News & Observer of Raleigh was ordered to pay about $6 million in a State Bureau of Investigation agent’s libel lawsuit.
The story about Jackie’s rape account set off a firestorm at the university and in schools nationwide. Eramo received hundreds of angry letters and emails calling her the “dean of rape,” among other things, and faced protesters outside her office. The story fell apart after other news outlets raised questions and police found no evidence to back it up.
During the more than two-week trial, the jury of eight women and two men watched 11 hours of video testimony, heard from a dozen live witnesses and examined nearly 300 exhibits. Deliberations took 2 1/2 days.
In arguing that Erdely acted with actual malice, Eramo’s attorneys said Erdely came into the story with a preconceived storyline about institutional indifference to sexual assault and intentionally disregarded statements and facts about Eramo that didn’t fit that narrative. They claimed Erdely ignored red flags about Jackie’s credibility, including the changing account of Jackie’s rape and her refusal to let Erdely talk to people who could corroborate her story.
Rolling Stone‘s attorneys acknowledged that Erdely and her editors made serious reporting mistakes, but said there was no evidence the reporter ever had serious doubts about Jackie’s credibility.
The magazine still faces a $25 million defamation lawsuit from the University of Virginia’s Phi Kappa Psi fraternity, where Jackie claimed her sexual assault took place.
The fraternity applauded the verdict Friday and said in a statement that it looks forward to presenting its case.