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In this edition of Ask General Counsel, we provide you an overview of the Johnny Depp / Amber Heard trial and verdict. Ask General Counsel is bi-monthly column by General Counsel, P.C., a law firm based in McLean, Virginia, representing businesses, non-profits and individuals throughout the Washington, D.C. Metro area (and beyond). For more information, visit: www.gcpc.com.
It has been impossible to avoid the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard drama on social media. The six-week trial, which took place at Virginia’s Fairfax County courthouse, finally came to a close on June 1, primarily in favor of Depp. Here’s what you need to know:
1. Who sued who? Why?
Actor Johnny Depp, 58, sued his ex-wife Amber Heard, 36, seeking $50 million for defamation following an opinion piece she wrote for The Washington Post. The op-ed, written by the “Aquaman” actress in December 2018 was titled, “I spoke up against sexual violence – and faced our culture’s wrath. That has to change.” Within the article, which never mentioned Depp’s name, Heard wrote that she became “a public figure representing domestic abuse.”
Depp alleged that Heard defamed him, filing suit in 2019, alleging that Heard’s op-ed falsely implied that he abused her during their 15-month marriage. Depp’s lawyer, Benjamin Chew, asserted in the trial’s opening statements that Heard’s op-ed clearly refers to Depp, and that her “false allegations” have had a “significant impact” on Depp’s family and “his ability to work in the profession he loved.” Just four days after Heard’s op-ed was published, Disney announced that it was dropping Depp from his leading role in “Pirates of the Caribbean” as Captain Jack Sparrow.
Heard clawed back one year later, filing a countersuit against Depp, similarly claiming that Depp defamed her when his former attorney, Adam Waldman, referred to Heard’s claims of abuse by Depp as an “abuse hoax.” She sought $100 million.
2. What has come to light as a result of this trial?
Depp allegedly brought this suit in order to clear his name, but the trial did the exact opposite for both he and Heard by putting the fierce battleground their tumultuous marriage enabled on the record for all to hear.
Before the seven-person jury, Heard painted Depp as a controlling partner who hit and sexually assaulted her throughout their whirlwind relationship, including one time where she claimed he slapped her face, threw her across the room and grabbed her by the neck. Depp, on the other hand, maintained that he never struck Heard but asserted that she was the violent instigator in the relationship. He testified that she once threw a vodka bottle at his hand during an argument, slicing off a piece of his middle finger.
Other witnesses testifying for each side revealed that that while their romance began like a movie on set, it spoiled into an onslaught of never-ending fights and physical altercations, the details of which varied massively depending on the individual testifying.
3. What did the jury have to consider?
The jury was tasked with deciding whether the statements within Heard’s article were about Depp and whether they were defamatory. Because Depp is a public figure, the claim against Heard could stand only if the jury decided that she acted with “actual malice” in writing the article, meaning that she knowingly wrote false statements or acted with reckless disregard for the truth.
In consideration of Heard’s counterclaim, the jury had to consider whether Depp’s former attorney, acting as his agent, published or made statements that were false about Heard and were seen by someone other than Heard, and whether Depp’s attorney made the statements with actual malice.
4. What was Amber Heard’s defense?
Ms. Heard’s attorney, Benjamin Rottenborn, argued that the First Amendment protects what Heard wrote. “The article isn’t about Johnny Depp. The article is about the social change for which she is advocating and that the First Amendment protects,” Rottenborn said.
5. What did the jury decide?
The jury found that Heard defamed Depp in three statements she wrote in her op-ed piece, and that Depp defamed Heard in one statement made by his former attorney. The jury awarded Depp $10 million in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages. Virginia law caps a maximum of $350,000 for punitive damages, so that award was reduced accordingly. The jury awarded $2 million to Heard in compensatory damages but no punitive damages.
Essentially, the jurors found that while American citizens have a right to free speech under the First Amendment, that right becomes obsolete if you knowingly make false statements that damage someone’s reputation in their industry. This verdict was devastating to Heard.
A spokesman of Heard revealed that she plans to appeal the verdict.
If you would like additional information on defamation, please see the following articles on the GCPC website:
– Andy Baxter on Defamation (video)
General Counsel, P.C. would like to thank Kristian Loomis, Esq. for her assistance researching and writing this article.