Days after the release of a now-retracted Rolling Stone magazine story about a brutal gang rape, the University of Virginia administrator portrayed in the article crawled under her desk and contemplated suicide as she felt her world come crashing down around her, she told jurors Monday.
“I just wanted to disappear,” said Nicole Eramo, who sued the magazine for $7.5 million over the portrayal of her in its 2014 story “A Rape on Campus.” “I didn’t know how it was going to be OK.”
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Eramo claims that the story portrayed her as a villain who sought to discourage the woman identified only as Jackie from reporting her alleged assault to police. A police investigation found no evidence to back up Jackie’s rape claims.
The 10-member jury concluded Friday that writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely was responsible for libel, with actual malice, and that Rolling Stone and its publisher were also responsible for defaming Eramo. Jurors heard testimony Monday about the extent to which the story has damaged Eramo’s life and reputation before they began deliberating to decide how much to award her in damages. Eramo had initially asked for $7.5 million.
After the article was published, Eramo said she had trouble sleeping, feared for her safety and struggled with how to explain what was happening to her then 7-year-old son. Her husband testified that he found her curled up under her desk one early morning, and she told him: “I don’t know that I can live anymore.”
“There were very dark moments,” said Eramo, who cried throughout much of her testimony. She said people would also avoid her on campus, making her feel like “a dead man walking.”
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 about whether it might be true.
Jurors found that the magazine and its publisher, Wenner Media, acted with actual malice because they republished the article with an editor’s note on Dec. 5 after they knew about the problems with Jackie’s story. The jury also 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.
Eramo claims the article prompted the university to move her out of her job as an associate dean into a different administrative role that she doesn’t like as much because she rarely works with students.
She explained Monday that when the article was published, she was also preparing to undergo a double mastectomy for breast cancer when the article was published. Eramo and her attorneys suggested that the stress she was under could have contributed to a post-surgery infection that led to a hospital stay.
“Even the strongest people have a breaking point,” said Tom Clare, an attorney for Eramo.
In their damages defense Monday, attorneys for Rolling Stone showed jurors just one exhibit: A 2015 Office of Civil Rights report that criticizes the university’s handling of sexual assault complaints and specifically mentions that Eramo helped to create a “hostile environment” for victims.
David Paxton, an attorney for Rolling Stone, told jurors that the magazine was “heartbroken” by Friday’s decision, but respected the verdict. Paxton said that jurors who may be angry at the magazine do not need to award a large sum of money to Eramo in order to send a message because they have already done that with their verdict.
He noted that Eramo not only kept a job at the university after the article was published, but she received a pay raise. He stressed that Eramo must show how she was damaged by the specific statements jurors found Rolling Stone and Erdely made with actual malice, which Paxton said she didn’t do.
“You can’t just give her a big award because you feel like she’s been harmed,” Paxton said.
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