In November 2020, Johnny Depp lost a libel case against the Sun newspaper over an article that said he assaulted Amber Heard. Why was the UK verdict not enough to dismiss the US case?
“The jury gave me my life back,” said Hollywood actor Johnny Depp after the verdict in the defamation trial against ex-wife Amber Heard. He could not have been more accurate.
The United States jury ruled largely in favour of The Pirates of the Caribbean actor, awarding him significantly more damages.
Depp, who sued Heard for defamation for a 2018 article in The Washington Post on domestic abuse, may have come out as the winner. But his victory is not absolute.
The court found Depp liable for defamation as well because of the statements made by his former lawyer Adam Waldman over Heard’s abuse claims. The jury awarded Heard $2 million in compensatory damages and no money for punitive damages.
Depp was awarded $10 million in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages.
While Depp might be a winner in the US, it’s not the case in the United Kingdom. Why so? He lost a libel case in which he was accused of being an abuser in Britain in November 2020.
What was the libel case in the UK?
In 2018, Depp sued the executive editor and publisher of the British tabloid The Sun for libel after it published an article which claimed that he assaulted Amber Heard and called him a “wife-beater”. It’s an allegation that Depp continues to deny.
The case was fought in Britain, where courts are said to be more plaintiff-friendly.
When the case went to trial in a London court, The Sun had to prove that its allegations against the Hollywood actor were accurate. The trial was heard over 16 days in July at the Royal Courts of Justice in London.
The newspaper called on Heard to testify. She recalled 14 instances during which she said Depp abused her between 2013 and 2016.
What happened at the trial?
The judge had back then highlighted three incidents where he said Depp had put Heard in “fear of her life”.
One of the incidents took place in Australia in 2015 during the filming of one of the editions of Pirates of the Caribbean.
Heard claimed he had assaulted her multiple times, severed his fingertip, and blamed her for the injury. The judge did not accept Heard had been responsible for hurting the fingertip by throwing a vodka bottle at Depp. He accepted Heard had been the victim of “sustained and multiple assaults”.
There was also an alleged incident in December 2014, which the judge said that he was “not persuaded… constituted a physical assault”, and another in November 2015, which the judge said could not be proven because it was not put to Depp in cross-examination, according to a BBC report.
What was the UK verdict?
Of the 14 alleged assaults heard in the court, the judge found 12 incidents of domestic violence had occurred.
Judge Justice Nicol had said on 2 November 2020 that The Sun had proved what was in the article to be “substantially true”.
“I accept her evidence of the nature of the assaults he committed against her. They must have been terrifying,” the judge had said.
Justice Nicol had said that “a recurring theme in Mr Depp’s evidence was that Ms Heard had constructed a hoax and that she had done this as an ‘insurance policy’,” and the actress was a “gold-digger”. He concluded that he did not accept that “characterisation” of Heard.
After the UK verdict, why did the US case continue?
In the UK, Depp’s case was against The Sun and not Heard. The verdict in the London court was not grounds to dismiss the suit against Heard filed in the US for the piece in The Washington Post, which was published in December 2018. That’s why the Virginia case went forward.
Three months after Heard’s op-ed was published, Depp filed the defamation suit in March 2019, seeking $50 million.
In January 2021, Heard countersued for $100 million, also in Virginia.
The trial that just concluded is Depp’s lawsuit against Heard. The actress’s lawsuit is likely to go to court later this year, reports Vox.
Why did Depp win in the US after losing in the UK?
In the UK, the decision, which went against Depp, was heard by one judge, whereas in the United States it was heard by a jury.
Libel law has traditionally been more favourable to plaintiffs in the UK, even leading to “libel tourism,” where plaintiffs sue in British courts to advantage their cause, says a report in The Washington Post.
In the US, plaintiffs face a much higher bar for proving libel of a public figure. Under American law, a plaintiff in a libel trial has to prove that they were harmed by an entity acting with actual malice, meaning they knew a libellous statement was untrue when they made it, reports The Post.
Mark Stephens, an international media, told the newspaper that Depp’s legal team in the United States ran a strategy known as DARVO (deny, attack, and reverse victim and offender). Thus, Depp became the victim and Heard the abuser.
“We find that DARVO works very well with juries but almost never works with judges, who are trained to look at evidence,” Stephens told The Post.
With inputs from agencies
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