Jury Rules in Favor of Joe Francis in U.S. Federal Court

2 November 2011 7:23 AM, PDT

PANAMA CITY — In the wee hours Thursday, eight women deliberating in the civil lawsuit against Joe Francis delivered a belated birthday present to the “Girls Gone Wild” creator when they declined to award any damages to any of the four women suing him. The verdict, which came about 1:30 a.m. — 14 hours after the jury began to deliberate — brought to a close the nearly two-week trial in which Francis represented himself until Judge Richard Smoak found him in contempt and fined him $2,500 after he asked one of the plaintiffs if she was a prostitute.

Reached later Thursday, Francis was exuberant.

“I’m feeling fantastic,” Francis said. “I’m just happy it’s over. This thing has dragged on long enough.”

Francis was very aggressive in his cross-examination of the plaintiffs, two of whom left the witness stand in tears, despite Smoak’s warning that jurors would think of him as “a reckless fool if you don’t treat her with kid gloves.”

“Let me make the mistake, your honor,” Francis replied. “It’s my mistake to make.”

Francis said Thursday his treatment of the plaintiffs worked in his favor because it showed they were not victims.

“I think it helped. I think the judge was wrong,” he said. “I shook them like a tree until all the fruit fell out, and I shook them violently.”

The women, who were permitted to proceed anonymously, were under 18 years old when they were filmed flashing their breasts to “Girls Gone Wild” cameramen on Spring Break in Panama City Beach. They were seeking compensatory and punitive damages for the emotional injuries they said they’d suffered.

The jury found the evidence supported the statement that Francis’ behavior was “beyond all possible bounds of decency and is regarded as shocking, atrocious and utterly intolerable in a civilized community,” but not with intent to cause emotional distress to the plaintiffs.

The jury’s decision stunned Rachel Seaton-Virga and Gerard Virga, who took up Francis’ defense halfway through the trial without access to all the plaintiffs’ evidence. Gerard Virga compared the victory to hitting a pinch-hit, walk-off home run.

Ross McCloy, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, referred questions to lead attorney Larry Selander, who was traveling to Chicago and could not be reached for comment Thursday. During her closing arguments, Seaton-Virga told the jury an old saw: “When you have facts, you argue the facts; when you have the law, you argue the law, and when you have neither, you pound your fist.” She told jurors the plaintiffs were pounding their fists.

“I think they followed the law. I think they got in there and they struggled, but they followed the law,” Rachel Seaton-Virga said of the jury. “I was very surprised because it’s not often that you find a jury that actually follows the law.”

Francis thanked his lawyers and the jurors. He was critical of the plaintiffs and their lawyers, the local justice system and Judge Smoak.

“I wouldn’t say I got a fair trial, but you know what, I got a fair result,” Francis said. “I went up against the same judge who put me in jail … and I still had the (courage) to stand up there and fight for what was right.” Francis spent nearly a year in jail when Smoak found him in contempt in 2007. He said he is exploring his legal options and may file suit against the plaintiffs and their attorneys. While the jury may have wanted to punish Francis for his business practices, there were some problems with the plaintiffs’ case, Gerard Virga said.

“I just don’t think the jurors could wrap their minds around the notion that she was coerced into taking a ride in his Ferrari and taking her back to his home,” Gerard Virga said Thursday.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys put on expert witnesses who testified the women didn’t mention their experiences with “Girls Gone Wild” during sessions with therapists in the years after they were filmed because they were “psychologically captured” by Francis.

“You can bring Ph.Ds. and experts in to extrapolate these opinions, but common sense tells you when you don’t talk about it for years, when you had opportunities, and it only comes up when you talk to the plaintiffs’ experts, it just doesn’t support the causal connection” between Francis and the plaintiffs’ problems, Gerard Virga said.