Depp v. Heard – What’s Behind the Defamation Trial?

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On April 11, 2022, Johnny Depp filed a $50 million defamation lawsuit against his ex-wife Amber Heard in Fairfax, Virginia. In the high-profile case, the 58-year-old Pirates of the Caribbean actor alleged that Heard’s accusations of domestic abuse during their three-year marriage were not only false but also damaged his long-standing career.

After six weeks of courtroom drama between the former spouses, the jurors began their deliberations on May 27, 2022, to determine whether there was abuse in their troubled marriage and whether Heard’s December 2018 op-ed piece in the Washington Post was defamatory.

What is a defamation lawsuit, and how hard is it to sue for damages in a libel claim? This article takes an in-depth look at the Depp defamation case.

The ongoing libel case involving Amber Heard and Johnny Depp isn’t the first time the estranged couple has been embroiled in a heated legal battle. Below is a detailed timeline of where it all began. It examines the genesis of the contentious back-and-forth in which both parties accuse each other of perpetrating domestic abuse in the course of their marriage.

May 2016: Heard Files for Divorce

On May 23, 2016, Heard filed for divorce after less than two years of marriage on the grounds of irreconcilable differences. Four days later, the actress filed for and was granted a temporary restraining order against Depp.

Over the next few months, the legal battle played out publicly, with tabloids publishing several photographs and recordings of Heard’s alleged abuse claims. Court documents revealed that one of the several alleged instances of domestic violence by Depp happened two days before Heard filed for divorce.

In the documents, she stated that Depp had been physically and verbally abusive to her throughout their relationship. She claimed she had endured angry, threatening, and humiliating assaults from him anytime she disagreed with him or questioned his authority.

In June of the same year, People magazine published a widely publicized photograph of Heard showing a bruised eye and lip. Depp’s legal team denied all the abuse allegations against him.

August 2016: Depp and Heard Divorce Settlement

A day before a restraining order hearing against Depp was set to begin, Heard retracted the abuse allegations she had previously made against him. The actors released a joint statement describing their troubled relationship as “deeply passionate and sometimes volatile, but bound in love.” It further stated that neither Heard nor Depp made any false accusations motivated by financial gain and that their intent was never to cause any emotional or physical harm.

According to the Hollywood Reporter, the estranged couple negotiated a non-disparagement agreement as part of the $7 million divorce settlement. Heard claimed she donated the proceeds to the Los Angeles Children’s Hospital and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

December 2018: Amber Heard Op Ed Washington Post

On December 18, 2018, The Washington Post published an op-ed piece by Heard, which identified her as both an actress and a women’s rights ambassador at the ACLU. In the article, Heard encouraged readers to show support to victims of domestic violence who come forward with abuse allegations. She also urged the audience to elect leaders whose primary agenda is to institute changes to laws and social norms with regard to gender-based violence.

Despite there being no direct mention of Depp, the public widely interpreted the piece as a thinly-veiled reference to him, given the glaring coverage of their contentious divorce two years earlier.

The op-ed touched on, among many things, the overwhelming attention from the paparazzi, several death threats, and the significant career losses she faced after coming forward with her abuse allegations. Heard claimed that she had first-hand experience seeing how society protects men accused of perpetrating domestic violence against women.

March 2019: Depp Sues Heard for Defamation

On March 1, 2019, Depp filed a defamation lawsuit in Fairfax Circuit Court, VA, following the Post publication. In the complaint, his legal team stated that Heard’s op-ed was centered on the premise that she was a victim of domestic abuse and that Depp was the perpetrator.

They argued that not only was this premise “categorically false,” but that it was Heard who perpetrated physical and verbal abuse against Depp. His claim was in reference to an incident she previously stated was an act of self-defense.

The complaint further attributed Heard’s piece in The Washington Post as being the reason Disney terminated Depp’s contract in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Four days after the op-ed was published, the media giant announced that it would no longer be working with Depp.

Depp, through his attorney Adam Waldman stated that the new defamation suit was brought on “newly available evidence” that had not been disclosed before. It included dozens of witness testimonies and surveillance tapes that refute Heard’s claims of abuse.

April 2019: Heard Files Motion to Dismiss

In her response, Heard alleged that Depp’s abuse toward her began one year into their relationship after she witnessed him abusing drugs and alcohol. She detailed several instances of the alleged abuse, which she claimed went on from 2012 to 2016.

One notable incident she described occurred in March 2015, when she alleges that Depp attacked her and left her barefoot and naked, covered in alcohol and shattered glass. Heard claimed that the tip of his finger was severed during the incident.

May 2019: Depp Files Motion to Oppose Dismissal

On May 20, 2019, Depp filed a motion opposing Heard’s application to have the case dismissed. Through his legal team, Depp argued that the lawsuit would have to be litigated in Virginia and not California due to a law that requires libel cases to be resolved in the “place of publication” rather than the “place of harm.”

Alongside the opposition, Depp filed a declaration stating that Heard had falsified the domestic abuse allegations against him. He claimed that on May 23, 2016, his soon-to-be ex-wife arrived in court with what he described as “painted-on bruises,” which, based on surveillance footage and witness testimonies, were not present the week before.

He further accused Heard of being abusive toward him during the entirety of their relationship, particularly when she was under the influence. He vehemently denied ever abusing Heard or any other woman.

Heard’s attorney, Eric George, released a statement dismissing Depp’s allegations as false, stating that the defamation suit against his ex-wife was a desperate attempt to revive his failing career.

What Happened to Johnny Depp in the UK Libel Case

newspapers pile on display

On April 27, 2018, The Sun newspaper, a UK-based media outlet, published an article on their website that referred to him as a “wife-beater.” The article was also published in the hard copy edition of the local newspaper with similar content.

Both pieces talked about Depp and Heard’s troubled relationship, focusing heavily on the alleged abuse perpetrated by Depp against his ex-wife. The recurring theme in the publications was that Depp was guilty of domestic violence against Heard, that he caused her grievous harm, and that she feared for her life as a result. The Sun further noted that Depp’s continuing restraining order made him unfit to work in the film industry.

In his claim against the newspaper giant, Depp alleged that the articles had caused serious harm to his professional and personal reputation. He pointed to the gravity of the allegations given the publication’s wide reach and the reverberating effect they would have in the midst of the #MeToo and #Time’sUp movements, both of which were widespread at the time.

Depp sued News Group Newspapers Ltd., the publisher of The Sun newspaper, and Dan Wootton, the publisher and owner of the media firm’s associated website. Depp lost the libel suit after his claim was dismissed by the court.

In his ruling, the presiding judge, Justice Nicol, concluded that Depp abused his ex-wife in 12 out of the 14 incidents brought forward by Heard. Based on UK civil law, the allegations sufficiently met the standard of proof required to show that the articles published in The Sun were true. Depp applied for permission to appeal the ruling in the Court of Appeal, but his application was subsequently rejected.

The biggest difference between the Johnny Depp abuse case in the UK versus the ongoing proceedings in the US is that a jury in Virginia will determine the outcome of the suit. In London, the decision was left in the hands of the presiding judge.

What Is Libel and Slander

While the terms defamation, libel, and slander are often used interchangeably, they don’t mean the same thing. However, they both have to do with causing harm to an individual’s reputation.

Defamation is a general area of law that provides an avenue through which you can sue a person or an entity for causing harm to your personal or professional reputation.

Libel refers to a published or written defamatory statement, while slander refers to a spoken defamatory statement made to a third party.

Some places where you might find potentially libelous statements include:

  • Blog posts
  • Blog post comments
  • Internet chat rooms
  • Letters to the editor of local newspaper publications
  • Opposite-the-editorial-page (op-ed) pieces on print and digital media
  • Public comments made on media websites

It is uncommon to find libelous statements published in written “letters to the editor” since they go through a thorough screening process to avoid landing on the wrong side of the law.

On the other hand, slander is an oratory statement. It can be made to anyone and anywhere, provided it is made to a third party other than the victim of defamatory remarks.

Keep in mind that the term “statement” as used in the context of defamation law can be written, spoken, pictured, or gestured.

Is Defamation a Crime

Under US law, defamation is not considered a crime. Instead, it is classified as a civil wrong, otherwise known as a “tort.” It means that an individual who has been defamed – either through libel or slander – can sue the perpetrator for damages. The overall objective of defamation law is to provide a remedy to the aggrieved party.

With that in mind, the question then becomes: How hard is it to sue for defamation?

While laws vary from state to state, there are four common elements that remain the same across the board when proving a defamation suit. The plaintiff needs to show that the statements made were:

1. Published

A third party saw or heard the defamatory statement. A “third-party” in this case refers to someone other than the individual who made the statement or the individual about whom the statement was about. “Published” doesn’t necessarily mean “printed.” The statement just needs to have been made public. This could be through television, social media, loud conversation, or even gossip.

2. False

For a defamatory statement to be considered damaging, it needs to be false. In other words, regardless of how disparaging the statements are, if they are true, then they are not defamatory.

3. Harmful

The person suing for defamation needs to show how injurious the statements were to their reputation. For instance, they need to prove that their reputation was harmed, causing them to lose their job or potential business opportunities, be subjected to press harassment, be shunned by friends and family, etc.

4. Unprivileged

In some states, courts do not consider some forms of communication “privileged,” depending on the setting in which the statements are made. For instance, communication in official proceedings such as police interviews, judicial proceedings, and executive actions is deemed privileged. Statements related to the proceedings in question but made outside these settings can be used in a defamation case.

What Is the Punishment for Defamation of Character

Depending on the state you reside in, there are generally three types of damages you can file for in a civil defamation case:

  • Compensatory damages: These refer to the actual losses suffered by an individual or business as a result of slanderous or libelous statements.
  • Punitive damages: These are awarded if the plaintiff can prove that the defendant acted maliciously or with intent to harm.
  • Nominal damages: These are awarded if the plaintiff can prove that they were the victim of slanderous or libelous statements but cannot define the injuries they suffered.

Depp v. Heard Verdict

The jury determined that Heard did indeed defame Depp on all counts. He was awarded $10 million and $5 million in compensatory and punitive damages, respectively. The judge capped the latter amount at $350,000, which is the maximum awardable punitive damages in the state of Virginia.

On the other hand, the jury awarded Heard $2 million in compensatory damages. She indicated that she was “unable to pay” the $8.35 million she owes Depp and would appeal the verdict.

Are you a victim of slander or libel? Chat with a Laws101 attorney right now to explore the available options for legal recourse.