Nearly two years after filing a more than $7.5 million defamation suit against Rolling Stone, its parent company and “A Rape on Campus” reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely—and five months after a jury awarded her $3 million—former UVA associate dean Nicole Eramo settled her case, likely for much less.
The November 19, 2014, Rolling Stone article shook UVA to its core and became a national sensation—until the story told by alleged gang-rape victim Jackie began to unravel. By December 5, 2014, Rolling Stone announced it no longer had faith in Jackie’s tale, and in April 2015, following a lacerating analysis by Columbia Journalism Review, the magazine retracted the story.
A month later, Eramo, the university’s go-to sexual assault administrator, filed suit. Among her complaints were that the article made her the “chief villain” in a tale of institutional indifference to rape, damaged her reputation and caused her emotional distress.
The jury trial lasted 17 days last fall in the U.S. District courthouse, culminating in the jury’s November 7 $3 million award.
Libel attorney Alice Neff Lucan says it’s not that uncommon to settle defamation cases after a jury verdict.
“One reason for a plaintiff to settle is to avoid more legal fees,” she says. “Any libel case is ripe for appeal.”
And indeed, the same day the jury made its award, Rolling Stone attorney Elizabeth McNamara said the magazine would appeal.
In February, Rolling Stone asked a federal judge to set aside the jury’s verdict, arguing that Rolling Stone’s December 2014 publication of the story with an editor’s note expressing lack of confidence in Jackie’s story did not constitute republication with actual malice. Judge Glen Conrad had not ruled on the motion when the case was settled.
Filing such a motion is “standard operating procedure,” says Lucan, who said she hadn’t followed the trial. “I’m assuming without knowing that the settlement is less than the award.”
A crowdsourcing website to help pay Eramo’s legal fees raised $31,086 of its $500,000 goal from 178 donors. “Nicole’s lawyers have agreed to discount their legal fees, but lawsuits are expensive and Nicole needs our help to cover the costs of litigation,” says the CrowdRise fundraiser page created by True Hoos.
And the cost of a trial that ran more than three weeks? “You could buy a couple of houses with what that cost,” says Lucan.
In January, Eramo’s attorneys at Clare Locke filed with the court a bill of costs incurred for the trial for $144,673, including more than $90,000 for transcripts.
Besides the expense of fighting an appeal, Lucan says there are other reasons to settle. “Being involved in a lawsuit is so draining,” she says. Emotionally it’s very difficult, and there’s the “personal wear and tear that really is part of the costs,” she says.
In a statement, the magazine says, “Rolling Stone, Sabrina Rubin Erdely and Nicole Eramo have come to an amicable resolution. The terms are confidential.”
And Eramo’s attorney, Libby Locke, says, “We are delighted that this dispute is now behind us, as it allows Nicole to move on and focus on doing what she does best, which is supporting victims of sexual assault.”
The settlement gives both sides control and it also ends it, says Lucan. “Maybe vindication for Dean Eramo means more than the dollar award.”