PANAMA City, Fla.—Following 12 hours of deliberations that ended early Thursday afternoon, a Florida jury decided that Joe Francis, the mercurial founder of Girls Gone Wild, is not responsible for lasting psychological harm claimed by four women who were filmed in 2002 by GGW engaging in various sexual acts when they were underage.
The women are now in their 20s. The federal case, which began back to 2008, was notable for morphing into a free speech test case of sorts, when the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals was asked to decide whether attorneys for the women could keep their clients’ names private as they pursue the original litigation (they could), and also for Joe Francis acting as his own attorney for several days before being held in contempt of court by U.S. District Judge Richard Smoak.
According to ABA Journal, “Smoak ruled after Francis had asked one of the plaintiffs if she was a prostitute. Smoak had chastised Francis earlier in the trial for his outbursts and unconventional legal tactics, telling Francis at one point: ‘Mr. Francis, shut up. You’re going to have the whole jury hating you.’” Francis subsequently hired a husband and wife team of attorneys to pick up the pieces of his defense.
Despite the notoriety of the case, its interminable delays, a change of defense counsel halfway through and the aforementioned dramatics in the courtroom, at the end of the day Francis was not only found not responsible for any lasting harm alleged by the women, but the jury declined to assess the plaintiffs any monetary damages whatsoever. To say the Francis team was thrilled with the verdicts would be the understatement of the century.
"I am relieved that I have finally been vindicated from these slanderous, disgusting, and now proven false allegations in a federal court by a jury of eight respectful, conservative women," Francis proclaimed in a prepared statement issued Thursday that claimed the four women were trying to “cripple” the GGW empire.
“My legal team did an outstanding job and Girls Gone Wild will continue to take strident measures to avoid facing these false allegations ever again," Francis added. "On behalf of myself and my corporations I would like to thank the jurors and the people of Panama City for their continued support."
The GGW announcement—sounding a lot like a treatment for a Rockyesque screenplay—paints a picture of a defendant with all the odds stacked against him, facing a judge who had previously jailed him for just under a year—“because he refused to settle a civil lawsuit brought against him”—in an uphill battle, with his future and the future of his company on the line—after having been “reprimanded by the judge, threatened with jail time and being held in contempt, Francis—like a prizefighter—fought back at the last minute, hiring local attorney husband and wife team Gerard Virga and Rachel Seaton-Virga.”
As absurdly overblown as that sounds, Judge Smoak pretty much concurred when he heaped praise on all of the attorneys in a case he said “may turn out to be the experience of a lifetime for all of us.“
In remarks made in the courtroom Wednesday after the jury had been sent off to deliberate, Smoak said, “This case pretty much had it all: drama, sex, larger-than-life personalities.
“I think you all have done a remarkable job trying this case on the evidence,” he added.
According to the Walton Sun, the judge then directly complimented newcomers Seaton-Virga and Virga, telling them, “You have really distinguished yourself. I don’t have any illusions about the challenges you faced.”
According to other news accounts as well, the Virga’s are singlehandedly responsible for saving Francis’ bacon.
“Whenever the jury gets the case, they will be asked to decide whether the plaintiffs were testifying truthfully in court last week, or in depositions in the years prior to the trial,” reported the NewsHerald.com. “Highlights of the depositions were read into the court record Tuesday by the defense to contradict the stories the plaintiffs told, which went largely unchallenged in any significant way while Francis was defending himself.
“None of the three plaintiffs who found themselves in counseling since their respective encounters mentioned their appearance in ‘Girls Gone Wild’ films as a potential cause of their problems during their therapy, according to the depositions,” the article continued, adding that Francis’ defense team was successful in exposing conflicting testimony and mitigating facts that undermined the women’s claims.
"An absolute triumph," said Gerard Virga, following the announcement of the verdict. "We came in halfway through the trial, behind the 8-ball and looking like the underdog, but within our system of law, Mr. Francis has been completely vindicated of these false allegations."
The jury was made up of eight women, by the way.