The Johnny Depp-Amber Heard libel trial, which generated widespread interest for two months earlier this year as a live, unrestricted soap opera featuring one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, isn’t quietly fading away.
Earlier this month, Heard’s attorneys filed a 51-page motion asking Judge Penney Azcarate to overturn the jury’s verdict, which awarded Depp $10 million and Heard $2 million for competing libel claims.
The motion cites multiple reasons why the verdict is untenable, from the surprising decision to declare both sides victorious to one extent or another, to a rare case of mistaken identity with one of the jurors.
Among the issues raised:
WHY $10 MILLION?
Depp sued for $25 million in Fairfax County after Heard wrote a 2018 Washington Post op-ed on domestic violence in which she referred to herself as “a public figure representing domestic abuse.” The article never mentioned Depp by name, but her lawyers said several passages in the article defamed him by implication referring to highly publicized abuse allegations she made in 2016 when she filed for divorce.
Heard later filed a $50 million countersuit, also for defamation. By the time the case went to trial, his counterclaim had been reduced to a few statements made by one of Depp’s lawyers, who called Heard’s abuse allegations a hoax.
The jury awarded $15 million to Depp and $2 million to Heard in their counterclaim. The $15 million judgment was reduced to $10.35 million because Virginia law limits punitive damages to $350,000.
Heard’s attorneys say in court papers that the $10 million verdict is not supported by the facts, and appears to show that jurors did not focus on the consequences of the 2018 op-ed as they were supposed to, and instead they only looked extensively at the damage Depp’s reputation suffered as a result of the alleged abuse.
However, Depp’s lawyers say the damages are supported by testimony from his agent and others. They say the precedents cited by Heard’s team to support his arguments “are decades old and none involve a major international celebrity.”
Steve Cochran, a Virginia civil attorney who was appointed by a judge as a neutral conciliator in the case to try to minimize pre-discovery disputes, said he always believed the weakest link in Depp’s case was damages. given evidence that the actor’s reputation had been ruined in Hollywood long before the op-ed was published. Still, he said he’s skeptical Heard can overturn the verdict.
Scott Surovell, an attorney and Democratic state senator who practices law in Fairfax, also said he sees little reason to set aside damages.
“What the judge is looking for… is that the verdict is adequately supported at trial and not based on speculation or conjecture. (Depp) makes a lot of money from movies. That does not seem to me that the damages were based on speculation or conjecture, but on evidence, ”he said.
“INCONSISTENT AND IRRECONCILIABLE”
Heard’s lawyers argue that the verdicts by Depp on the one hand and Heard on the other are fundamentally absurd.
“The dueling verdicts of the jury are inconsistent and irreconcilable,” his attorneys wrote.
However, Depp’s lawyers say the verdict form jurors used allowed them to pinpoint exactly what statements they found defamatory. When you look at the individual statements, they say, dueling verdicts make sense.
Jeremiah Denton III, a Virginia Beach attorney with experience in defamation cases, said he doesn’t think the verdicts are irreconcilable. In any case, he said, the prize that is most in jeopardy is the $2 million awarded to Heard, because he said it is legally doubtful that Depp can be held liable for statements made by his lawyer.
“I don’t understand why the judge allowed that issue to go to the jury,” he said.
One of the more unusual topics in the discussion is a case of apparent mistaken identity with one of the jurors. According to court documents, a 77-year-old county resident was served with a summons for trial. But the man’s son, who has the same name and lives at the same address, responded to the summons and served in his place.
Heard’s attorneys say Virginia law is strict about the identities of jurors, and the case of mistaken identity is grounds for a mistrial. They have presented no evidence that the 52-year-old son, identified in court documents only as juror #15, deliberately or insidiously sought to replace his father, but argue that possibility should not be ruled out.
“The court cannot assume, as Mr Depp asks, that juror 15’s apparently inappropriate service was an innocent mistake. It could have been an intentional attempt to serve on the jury of a high-profile case,” Heard’s attorneys wrote.
Paul Bekman, a Baltimore attorney who has also tried cases in Virginia, said Heard’s team needed to raise any jury issues ahead of time.
“Anyone looking at a 52-year-old and a 77-year-old could hopefully say there’s a 25-year difference, and they’d have a right to ask about that,” he said. “I think it’s too late to complain to the jury.”
Cochran also said he was skeptical the mix-up could result in a mistrial or the judge overturning the verdict, but cautioned that it’s hard to predict because the problem is so rare.
“I’ve been practicing for 50 years and I’ve never seen that problem come up,” he said.
___ Lavoie reported from Richmond.