Day 17: Jury awards $3 million in Rolling Stone defamation trial

Nicole Eramo faces the media scrum for the last time in her 17-day trial, and attorney Libby Locke says shame on Rolling Stone.
Staff photo Nicole Eramo faces the media scrum for the last time in her 17-day trial, and attorney Libby Locke says shame on Rolling Stone. Staff photo

As former UVA dean Nicole Eramo’s marathon $7.5 million defamation suit against Rolling Stone rolled into its fourth week, a jury awarded her $3 million in damages Monday for the magazine’s November 2014 story, “A Rape on Campus.”

“This was nothing short of a complete repudiation of Rolling Stone and Sabrina Erdely’s malicious journalism,” said Eramo attorney Libby Locke.

The award put $2 million of the liability on reporter Erdely for statements in her story and post-publication publicity, and found Rolling Stone liable for $1 million for republishing the story December 5, 2014, with an editor’s note saying it found one-named source Jackie no longer credible.

“I’m certainly happy to be putting it behind me and getting to the next chapter of my life,” said Eramo after the jury award.

“The real win was Friday and the verdict and the public repudiation of Rolling Stone,” said Locke. “Shame on them. Shame on them.”

The Rolling Stone legal team, along with Erdely and managing deputy editor Sean Woods, left by the federal courthouse back door, and when spotted in The Pointe lounge at the Omni Hotel, declined to comment, but seemed rather cheery despite the jury’s decision.

“Yeah, we’re going to appeal,” said attorney Elizabeth McNamara.

Friday, November 4, was when, after two-and-a-half days of deliberation, the jury found that Rolling Stone, Erdely and Wenner Media acted with actual malice when it published the now debunked tale of UVA student Jackie’s alleged gang rape at Phi Kappa Psi and its assertions that Eramo discouraged victims from reporting assaults and had a “nonreaction” when Jackie told her about two additional gang rapes at Phi Psi.

The jury was back in court Monday for the damages portion of the trial.

Rolling Stone attorney David Paxton, representing a chastened Rolling Stone that heard the jury’s verdict “loud and clear” on Friday and wanted “to take our medicine,” he said, reminded jurors that the scope of the initial suit had been narrowed to three statements in the story, and not the article as a whole nor the illustration of Eramo that she said made her “look like the devil.”

After the Rolling Stone article came out, Eramo’s anguish was so great, she said she curled into a ball, wanted to disappear and considered suicide, testimony that had one juror wiping a tear and another nodding her head in agreement with the harm Eramo said the story caused her.

When she first read the story, Eramo found its account of a gang rape “heartbreaking,” and she was confused. She said, “I didn’t understand why [Jackie] didn’t let me help her.”

Then she read the parts about her, and said, with her voice breaking, it was “somebody who had my name, and then the picture was somebody who had my face, but not somebody I recognized.”

The depiction of her discouraging survivors from reporting their assaults “was devastating to me,” she said. “That was exactly the opposite of what I tried to do.”

Eramo described the “surreal” feeling of walking through Grounds after the story came out with everybody upset. A SlutWalk to end rape culture ended up protesting outside her office, and “created the picture that was in the story,” she said.

Fearing for her physical safety, her husband would pick her up from work at night. She turned the more than 200 vicious e-mails she received over to University Police, and she read a sampling of them:

“I’m sickened by what I have read and you should be ashamed of yourself and how you treat victims of sexual assault.”

“You are a despicable human being.”

Another had the subject line: “Dean of rape.”

Eramo told the jury she cried constantly and couldn’t sleep or eat. Using student lingo, she said, “I was a hot mess.” She retreated into herself and “felt like a pox upon people near me,” she added.

The damages hearing also included testimony about her breast cancer. A double mastectomy had been scheduled for December 19, 2014, exactly one month after the Rolling Stone article was published.

By the end of January, she had an infection and ended up in the hospital for nine days, which caused her to abandon reconstruction and push back chemotherapy.

“I felt seriously debilitated going into my surgery,” she said.

Her doctor, Kant Lin, testified, “Stress is a very insidious thing,” and created “an unfavorable situation for surgical healing.”

Her husband, Kirt von Daacke, a UVA history professor and assistant dean, described the impact of the Rolling Stone story: “Holy cow. When the article hit, it was as if someone set the University of Virginia on fire.”

The day the article came out, he heard his wife crying at 5am. “And it got worse from there,” he said, with protests outside her office and a faculty e-mail chain calling for her to be fired. “I’ve never heard so many angry people talking about my wife,” he said.

“They destroyed her,” he said.

And on the Sunday after the article came out, he heard “sobbing from the abyss,” he said. “It was a wail I’ve never heard from her. She was curled up in the fetal position in a little ball. I don’t know how we got through that.”

He also noted, “To me, it looks like she’s aged five years in the past two years. It’s hard when you’re nearly 50 to have the career you thought you had taken away.”

Eramo’s attorney Tom Clare directed the jury to consider the injury his client had suffered from pain, embarrassment, humiliation or mental suffering. Injury to her reputation and her professional standing, including the “loss of her dream job,” should also be part of the award, he said.

“Nicole’s great-grandchildren will never know her,” he said. “What they will know is what’s on the Internet.”

Paxton countered that when her descendants Google her, “the story is going to be about the vindication of Ms. Eramo.”

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