CHARLOTTESVILLE — A federal jury has awarded $3 million in damages to a former University of Virginia associate dean after finding that a Rolling Stone magazine article sullied her reputation by alleging that she was indifferent to allegations of a gang rape on campus.
The 10 jurors heard arguments for damages in the case Monday, determining that Nicole Eramo’s suffering should cost a reporter and Rolling Stone multiple millions as a result of the article, which was retracted after its serious flaws were exposed. Eramo testified during the trial that after the article published, she faced threats, lost her ability to pursue her life’s work as a sexual assault prevention advocate, and took a major hit to her professional credibility.
On Friday, the same jury found that the magazine and one of its journalists, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, was liable for defaming Eramo in a 9,000-word account of sexual assault published in November 2014. The magazine in December amended the article online to say that it had lost faith in the source of its most shocking allegations, and it later fully retracted the article after a Charlottesville police investigation and a report by the Columbia University School of Journalism found that aspects of the account were false.
The jury awarded Eramo $2 million from Erdely and $1 million from Rolling Stone, less than half of the original $7.5 million that Eramo sought when she filed her lawsuit in May 2015. But in judging the seriousness of Eramo’s false portrayal in the magazine, jurors still found considerable fault in the reporting and publishing of the story, deciding after more than two weeks of testimony and argument that Rolling Stone acted with “actual malice.”
“This was nothing short of a complete repudiation of Rolling Stone and Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s flawed journalism,” Eramo’s attorney, Libby Locke, said in a statement.
Titled “A Rape on Campus,” the article was published to acclaim and went viral on the Internet, attracting millions of readers to the Rolling Stone website and another million more to the print magazine before the editors retracted the story in April 2015. Its in-depth look at sexual assault at U-Va. made it appear that the campus administration was callous to the issue, using the fraternity gang-rape account to punctuate its narrative. The article alleged that Eramo discouraged the main character, Jackie, from reporting the alleged gang rape; trial testimony revealed that Eramo had several times encouraged Jackie to go to police to seek justice.
In emotional testimony on Monday, Eramo said that her life and her life’s work unraveled after the article published.
“I’ve always known I’m not the person in the article — that’s why we’re here today,” Eramo said. “But it’s hard to get back to where I was.”
Eramo said that U-Va. reassigned her from her duties counseling students on matters involving sexual violence and that she felt adrift on the campus she had called home for 20 years. Eramo said that she received hundreds of vitriolic email messages and that in her darkest moment she considered suicide.
“I just wanted to disappear,” Eramo said.
Eramo read aloud one message that appeared in her inbox days after the Rolling Stone article circulated: “God will have his day with you and hold you accountable,” the sender told Eramo. “You are a despicable human being.”
In the wake of the article, Eramo said, she lost her title as associate dean as well as a sense of herself. When before Eramo used to walk around campus hugging students, afterward she felt like “a dead man walking.”
“I mourn the loss of Dean Eramo on a daily basis,” she said. “I miss her. . . . It wasn’t just a job.”
Eramo also testified that while she was dealing with the fallout of the Rolling Stone article she received a cancer diagnosis. She recalled that earlier in the fall of 2014 physicians detected the early stages of a tumor in her breast and later found that the cancer had metastasized to her lymph system. A month after the article published she underwent a double mastectomy before chemotherapy and further hospitalization as she battled a serious infection.
After the damages decision, Eramo said she’s ready to get past the case: “I’m certainly happy to put this behind me and move on to the next chapter of my life.”
David Paxton, a lawyer for Rolling Stone, began his questioning of Eramo by apologizing to her on behalf of Erdely and the magazine.
“Words can’t solve all the problems, but it’s important we acknowledge the harm you suffered,” Paxton said.
Paxton said that Rolling Stone respects the jury’s decision that the story had defamed Eramo with actual malice, a punishing blow to the magazine’s credibility. He also cautioned jurors to act with restraint when assessing a monetary award for damages.
“Some people are angry that we need to hear a message, but your verdict on Friday was loud and clear,” Paxton said. “This has been a badge of shame for Rolling Stone and Ms. Erdely.”
Paxton also noted that Eramo’s professional reputation has risen since the article published, pointing out that she received salary increases and prestigious awards from the university.
This article has been updated.