ATLANTA – A federal judge on Friday penalized Hustler Magazine $375,000 for publishing decades-old nude photographs of a professional wrestler's wife who was later slain in a murder-suicide, marking the latest step in a family's First Amendment fight that had to survive a Supreme Court challenge before reaching an Atlanta jury.
The judge's decision sharply reduced a judgment of nearly $20 million that a jury initially awarded to the family of Nancy Benoit, whose husband Chris Benoit killed her and his young son before committing suicide in 2007. U.S. District Judge Thomas Thrash ruled that the award can't exceed Georgia's $250,000 cap on punitive damages.
The lawsuit was brought by Nancy Benoit's family after the Larry Flynt Publishing Group published the photos in the adult magazine in 2008. The family claimed that Nancy, who was a model and former professional wrestler herself, had asked the photographer to destroy the images after they were made about 20 years ago.
The magazine countered that the photos were part of a greater story on the life and tragic death of Nancy Benoit, and a federal judge in 2008 concluded that the magazine had the right to publish the pictures because her death was a "legitimate" matter of public interest.
The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, however, reversed the decision a year later, warning that a notorious death shouldn't give publishers a blank check to publish any images they wish — particularly those not linked to a newsworthy event. The Supreme Court then dismissed Hustler's appeal in March 2010.
The photos were published after the wrestler, his wife and their son were found dead in their suburban Atlanta home. Police said Chris Benoit, then a wrestler for World Wrestling Entertainment, strangled his wife and son and then hanged himself.
Hustler's attorneys did not immediately return a message seeking comment Friday afternoon. Benoit's attorney, Richard Decker, said he's likely to ask the 11th Circuit to reinstate the jury's original award of about $19.7 million.
"That's a lot of money to walk away from," he said. Still, he added, "the family is pleased that the jury vindicated their belief that Hustler had acted egregiously in doing what they did. It was never about the money for them."
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