It turns out that Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker may have been more of a tag team match than originally reported. This fascinating/scary piece from Talking Points Memo notes that a Silicon Valley billionaire named Peter Thiel bankrolled the Hogan suit that resulted in a crippling $115 million judgment against Gawker. According to the TPM piece, Nick Denton, the beleaguered owner of the publication, apparently got suspicious about whether a third party was financing the litigation based on the fact that “Hogan’s lawyers made key decisions which made zero sense if the goal was to maximize [Hogan’s] settlement.” TPM also reports that in recent weeks, there have been several new lawsuits filed against Gawker and all brought by the same attorney who represented Hogan.
Now it’s entirely possible that the spate of lawsuits, all filed by the same lawyer are on the up and up. Success breeds success as people say. So if several plaintiffs had problems with Gawker, it’s not surprising that they may flock to the lawyer who secured a company killing verdict against it.
But it’s not so much on the up and up if the plaintiffs and the lawyer are doing the bidding of an unrelated party. The common law had a term for that kind of conduct –“maintenance.” It is defined as “the intermeddling of a disinterested party to encourage a lawsuit.” A related concept is “champerty.” Champerty" is the "maintenance" of a person in a lawsuit on condition that the subject matter of the action is to be shared with the maintainer. They were crimes and torts at common law. And they should be. Lawsuits are designed to resolve real disputes between the parties in the suit. Lawsuits are not intended to provide opportunities for surrogates to fight out unrelated battles – especially where one of the combatants lurks in the shadows.
I won’t repeat the point made in the TPM piece other than to say it is a scary prospect that someone with enough money and vindictiveness can use the court system to shut down a publication he doesn’t like. Given that one blow hard presidential candidate has called for “loosening up libel laws” the prospects are even more chilling. Perhaps now would be a good time to re-visit the evils of “maintenance” and “champerty.”