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Hustler Wins 'Free Speech' Appeal Over Chris Benoit Wife Photo

By Andrew Chow, Esq. | Last updated on

Hustler magazine will not have to pay $250,000 in punitive damages for publishing nude photos of pro wrestler Chris Benoit's late wife, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday.

But the racy men's magazine is still on the hook for $125,000 in compensatory damages to the estate of Nancy Benoit, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports.

Nancy Benoit's mother sued Hustler for publishing 20-year-old nude photos of her daughter without permission in March 2008 -- about eight months after Nancy Benoit was killed by her husband, CNN reports.

Wrestling star Chris Benoit strangled his wife Nancy and their son Daniel before killing himself in June 2007, according to CNN.

In digging up and publishing old photos of Nancy Benoit, Hustler violated Georgia's "right of publicity" law, her mother's lawsuit claimed. Georgia's law, like that in many other states, prohibits "the appropriation of another's name and likeness ... without consent and for the financial gain of the appropriator," CNN reports.

Hustler's lawyers, however, argued the magazine's use of the nude Nancy Benoit photos was allowed under a "newsworthiness" exception to the "right of publicity" law.

A lower court in 2009 sided with Nancy Benoit's estate. Hustler's "brief biography" about Benoit and her murder was not "newsworthy," the lower court found, according to CNN. Jurors slapped Huslter with a $19.6 million punitive judgment; a judge reduced that award to $250,000.

But the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday vacated the punitive award. It found "overwhelming evidence" that Hustler "reasonably and honestly (albeit mistakenly) believed the photographs were subject to the newsworthiness exception."

"A defendant operating under an innocent mistake cannot be held liable for punitive damages," the court wrote in vacating the judgment against Hustler. The estate of Chris Benoit's late wife can now ask the U.S. Supreme Court to consider the case.

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