Johnny Depp has prevailed in his $50m (£40m) defamation lawsuit against his ex-wife Amber Heard over allegations of domestic abuse.
A seven-person civil jury in Virginia found that Ms Heard defamed the Pirates of the Caribbean and Fantastic Beasts star when she implied he abused her in a 2018 op-ed for The Washington Post,
The jury also upheld one of Ms Heard’s three claims in a $100m countersuit against Mr Depp and his lawyer, who had called her original in 2016 an “ambush” and “a hoax”.
Neither side, however, got the full amount of damages they were seeking.
How much money were Depp and Heard awarded?
Depp was awarded compensatory damages of $10m and punitive damages of $5m by the jury, compared to the $50 million sought by his lawyers.
Ms Heard was awarded compensatory damages of $2m and no punitive damages, compared to the $100m requested by her countersuit.
Since Virginia law limits punitive damages to $350,000, the actress is liable to pay Mr Depp a total of $10.35m.
Altogether, that leaves Mr Depp with $8.35m from the trial, although it is unclear who will be ordered to pay whose legal costs.
Neither party’s damages can be avoided due to bankruptcy, which Mr Depp reportedly came close to in 2009.
Where does this outcome leave both parties?
Dan Abrams, founder of the trial news network Law and Crime, described the result as “a real surprise” and “a total loss for Amber Heard”, arguing that the $2m awarded to her was “really a token win”.
He said: “It seems to me that the takeaway from this case is, these jurors believed Johnny Depp and they didn’t believe Amber Heard. I don’t think there is any other way to interpret all of these verdicts together.”
The verdict stood in contrast with another, similar case in the UK, in which Mr Depp unsuccessfully sued The Sun for calling him a “wife beater”. His appeal was rejected in March 2021.
Even though British defamation law is traditionally kinder to the aggrieved party than in the US, a judge found that the newspaper had proved its article was “substantially true” and that 12 of the 14 alleged incidents of domestic violence had indeed occurred.
To complicate matters, Depp previously paid Heard $7 million as part of the settlement they finalised in 2017. which she said cost her “over $6 million” in legal fees.
A spokesperson for Ms Heard told The New York Times that she plans to appeal the result.
Why were the damages so high?
The amount awarded to Mr Depp reflects the jury’s belief that Ms Heard acted with “actual malice”, meaning that she either knew her claims were false or that she acted with “reckless disregard for the truth” when she wrote her op-ed and “ republished” it by retweeting it on Twitter.
The op-ed did not name Mr Depp, but Ms Heard had already publicly accused him of domestic violence two years earlier. Hence, lawyers for Mr Depp argued that she was clearly referencing him.
Before the verdict, the judge instructed the jury to choose a level of compensatory damages that would “fairly compensate” plaintiffs for financial losses due to defamatory statements, damage to their business, injury to their reputation, and “any pain, embarrassment, humiliation, or mental suffering”.
They were told to award punitive damages on top of this only if they believed that Heard’s statements, or those of Depp’s lawyer, were knowingly false or made “so recklessly as to amount to a willful disregard for the truth” – meaning the speakers had “ a high degree of awareness that the statements were probably false”.
Evidently, the jury believed that at least one of Heard’s statements justified that punitive damages, while only one of Depp’s lawyer’s statements cleared the lower bar for compensatory damages.
What were the statements at issue?
Heard is the first accused Depp of abusing her in 2016, when she filed for divorce and obtained a temporary restraining order against him.
“During the entirety of our relationship, Johnny has been verbally and physically abusive to me. I endured excessive emotional, verbal and physical abuse from Johnny, which has included angry, hostile, humiliating and threatening assaults to me whenever I questioned his authority or disagreed with him,” she said at the time.
After their divorce settlement, they released a joint statement saying: “Neither party has made false allegations for financial gain. There was never any intent of physical or emotional harm.”
In 2018, though, Heard wrote an op-ed about sexual violence in which she identified herself as a survivor. Depp’s lawsuit took aim at three sections of that op-ed, which he argued were false and defamatory.
The first was the headline, which Heard did not write, and which read: “I spoke up about sexual violence – and faced our culture’s wrath”. The second was her claim that “two years ago, I became a public figure representing domestic abuse, and I felt the full force of our culture’s wrath for women who speak out.”
The third part read: “I had the rare vantage point of seeing, in real time, how institutions protect men accused of abuse.”
According to the judge’s instructions, the jury had to believe not only that all three of these claims were false, but that they would be read by others as referring to Depp, that they were “designed and intended” by Heard to defame him, and that she made them with the actual owner.
Heard’s countersuit, meanwhile, concerned three statements from Depp’s lawyer Adam Waldman. In the first, he accused “Heard and her friends in the media” of “us[ing] fake sexual violent as both a sword and a shield”.
In the second, he claimed Heard and her friends had deliberately “set Mr Depp up” by fabricating damage to their home, coordinating their stories together, and then making a false emergency call. In the third, he referred to Heard’s as an “abuse hoax”.
The jury decided that only the second claim fulfilled all the criteria for defamation, meaning it was both false and made with the actual malice.