RICHMOND, Va.—A federal jury on Friday found 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 gang rape at a fraternity house.
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.
Rolling Stone’s attorneys said there was no evidence that the reporter knew what she was writing about Eramo was false or had serious doubts about whether it was true.
In a statement Friday, the magazine apologized to Eramo and anyone else impacted by the story.
“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. We will continue to publish stories that shine a light on the defining social, political and cultural issues of our times, and we will continue to seek the truth in every story we publish.”
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. Among them was one in which 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 repost the story on Dec. 5, 2014—with an editor’s note acknowledging that there were discrepancies in Jackie’s account—counted as “republishing” the debunked story. The magazine did not officially retract the story and remove it from its website until the following April.
Jurors will decide at a later date how much to award Eramo in damages.
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.
Rolling Stone has agreed to cover all of Erdely’s legal cost and any damages levied against her.
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 crumbled after other news outlets began asking questions and police found no evidence to back it up. The article was officially retracted in April 2015.
Over the course of 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.
The judge earlier this week dismissed Eramo’s claim that the story, when taken as a whole, implied that Eramo was a “false friend” to Jackie. Rolling Stone had called that a “critical element” of her case.
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.
Eramo’s attorneys argued that 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 also 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.
Attorneys for Rolling Stone acknowledged that Erdely and her editors made serious reporting mistakes, but argued that there was no evidence they acted with actual malice.
The magazine’s attorneys said that Erdely and her editors had full faith in Jackie until they realized she was no longer credible in early December after the story was published.