Expert Lawyer Says Case Is Merely Round One In High Profile Battle
Following one of the most long running and high profile English libel trials of this century, Johnny Depp has lost his claim against News Group Newspapers (publisher of The Sun newspaper) and The Sun’s Executive Editor, Dan Wootton, over an article that labelled him a "wife beater". In a 129 page judgment, Mr Justice Nicol ruled that allegations calling Johnny Depp a "wife beater" were "substantially true".
Mr Depp sued over two articles appearing in The Sun in April 2018, with the former titled ‘GONE POTTY How Can J K Rowling be “genuinely happy” casting wife beater Johnny Depp in the new Fantastic Beasts film?”, before an amended headline and article was published the following day which read ‘GONE POTTY How Can J K Rowling be “genuinely happy” casting Johnny Depp in the new Fantastic Beasts film after assault claim?’
The articles referred to his well-publicised and highly acrimonious relationship with his then ex-wife Amber Heard.
In determining whether a statement or words are defamatory, one must consider the natural and ordinary meaning of the alleged defamatory words/statements. In relation to Mr Depp’s claim, he stated that the natural and ordinary meaning of the content of the articles was that he ‘was guilty, on overwhelming evidence, of serious domestic violence against his then wife, causing significant injury and leading to her fearing for her life, for which the Claimant [Mr Depp] was constrained to pay no less than £5 million to compensate her, and which resulted in him being subjected to a continuing restraining order; and for that reason is not fit to work in the film industry.’ Mr Depp said that the publication of the articles has caused serious harm to his personal and professional reputation.
The Defendants relied on the defence of Truth and sought to prove that Mr Depp had beat Ms Heard during their relationship, causing her to suffer serious injury and to fear for her life on a number of occasions. In doing so, the Defendants relied on 14 alleged instances of serious physical assault by Mr Depp on Ms Heard which were said to have taken place between 2013 and 2016 in various locations around the world, and one even on a private flight from Boston to Los Angeles, mostly all while Mr Depp was under the influence of alcohol and drugs.
Mr Depp denied he had ever been physically violent towards Ms Heard and instead argued that it was she, who had been violent towards him. Over the lengthy trial, Mr Depp and his 18 additional witnesses gave evidence, along with Ms Heard and her 6 witnesses.
The court was required to consider the meaning of the articles in dispute and whether the meaning conveyed by the articles was substantially true.
In dismissing Mr Depp’s claim, Mr Justice Nichol said "Although he [Mr Depp] has proved the necessary elements of his cause of action in libel, the defendants have shown that what they published in the meaning which I have held the words to bear was substantially true….I have reached these conclusions having examined in detail the 14 incidents on which the defendants rely, as well as the over-arching considerations which the claimant submitted, I should take into account."
Mr Justice Nichol went on to say: "I have found that the great majority of alleged assaults of Ms Heard by Mr Depp have been proved to the civil standard."
Despite the judge’s overwhelming findings of fact Mr Depp’s legal team have commented that “this decision is as perverse as it is bewildering” and that ”the judgment is so flawed that it would be ridiculous for Mr Depp not to appeal this decision.” Appellate courts will only (in exceptional and very limited circumstances) interfere with a trial judge’s conclusions in respect of findings of facts unless they are satisfied that the trial judge was plainly wrong and made a finding of fact that no reasonable judge could have reached. The judgment in this case makes that very difficult.
Whilst this judgment is a devastating loss for Mr Depp, it is merely round one in the legal battle between the parties. Mr Depp has also brought proceedings in the US against the Washington Post following an article Ms Heard wrote in the paper with the headline, ‘I spoke up against sexual violence – and faced our culture’s wrath. That has to change.’ Amber Heard has countersued both Mr Depp and his lawyer for accusing her of lying over the domestic abuse, the trial is due to be heard in May 2021.
Whatever the ultimate outcome in the proceedings in England and in the US, given the deeply personal attacks emanating from both parties and the spotlight it has cast on their private lives and relationship, win or lose, neither party will be left unblemished.