Johnny Depp loses UK libel case over 'wife-beater' claims

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FILE - In this file photo dated Tuesday, July 28, 2020, US Actor Johnny Depp arrives at the High Court in London during his case against News Group Newspapers over a story published about his former wife Amber Heard, which branded him a 'wife beater'. A British judge is set to deliver his judgement in writing on Monday Nov. 2, 2020, deciding whether a tabloid newspaper defamed Depp by calling him a wife beater." (AP Photo/Frank Augstein, FILE)

LONDON – Johnny Depp lost his high-stakes libel case Monday against The Sun tabloid newspaper for labeling him a “wife beater,” as a British judge said he believed the actor had abused ex-wife Amber Heard to such an extent that she frequently feared for her life.

In a decision widely cheered by campaigners against domestic abuse, Justice Andrew Nicol said the defendants proved during the trial in London that their allegations against Depp were "substantially true.” Depp’s lawyers said it would be “ridiculous” if the actor didn't appeal the decision.

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Over the course of nearly three weeks this summer, Nicol heard lurid — and irreconcilable — accounts from Depp and Heard in which each accused the other of abuse.

“I have found that the great majority of alleged assaults of Ms. Heard by Mr. Depp have been proved to the civil standard," Nicol wrote in his ruling.

In arguably the biggest English libel trials of the 21st century, Depp sued News Group Newspapers, publisher of The Sun, and its executive editor, Dan Wootton, over an April 2018 article that accused him of assaulting fellow actor Heard.

The ruling deals a big blow to Depp's reputation that could imperil his career, which has seen the actor take the lead in some of the most popular family movies in recent times, from “Edward Scissorhands” to most lucratively the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise. That reputational cost clearly comes with an indeterminate financial cost on top of the several millions pounds in legal costs he will likely be required to pay following Monday's ruling.

A lawyer for Depp, 57, described the decision as “perverse as it is bewildering.”

“The judgment is so flawed that it would be ridiculous for Mr. Depp not to appeal this decision,” Jenny Afia said in a statement.

An attorney for Heard, meanwhile, said the verdict was “not a surprise” for anyone who followed the trial.

Historically, Britain's libel laws have been seen as favoring public figures and for being tough on media outlets and publishers, so Depp's defeat may prompt anyone considering legal action to think again.

The Sun called the decision a “stunning victory for press freedom.”

At the heart of the Sun's characterization of Depp as a “wife-beater” were allegations the actor assaulted Heard 14 times in locations around the world.

Heard, 34, said the abuse was largely fueled by Depp's heavy drug and alcohol use and that he could turn into “a self-created third party,” which he referred to as “The Monster.” She alleged that at various time between 2013 and 2016 he hit, slapped and shoved her, pulled her hair and threw bottles “like grenades” at her.

Nicol noted several times when Heard feared for her life, including during what Heard described as a “three-day hostage situation” in Australia in March 2015 while Depp was filming a “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie.

“I accept her evidence of the nature of the assaults he committed against her," the judge wrote about the episode in Australia. “They must have been terrifying.”

In court, Depp accused Heard of making up her allegations, while acknowledging wide-ranging drug problems. However, he insisted he is “not a violent person, especially with women,” a characterization that was backed up in statements from former partners Winona Ryder and Vanessa Paradis.

The judge found that 12 of the 14 instances of domestic violence had occurred and said that was sufficient to rule against Depp.

He also accepted Heard's evidence that the allegations against one of the world's most popular actors had "a negative effect" on her work as an actor and activist.

Depp argued that the allegations caused “serious harm” to his reputation and “significant distress and embarrassment.” His lawyers said the case was about clearing his reputation and nothing to do with any potential financial award — in the U.K., there’s a notional ceiling of around 300,000 pounds ($400,000) on libel awards, small in comparison to those possible in the U.S.

Depp is also suing Heard for $50 million in Virginia over a Washington Post op-ed essay that she wrote about domestic violence. The essay talks about her experience being abused but does not name Depp. The trial is due to be held next year.

“Very soon, we will be presenting even more voluminous evidence in the U.S.,” said Elaine Charlson Bredehoft, Heard’s attorney in the U.S.

Afia, who represents Depp, said "we hope that in contrast to this case, the ongoing libel proceedings in America are equitable, with both parties providing full disclosure rather than one side strategically cherry-picking what evidence can and cannot be relied upon.”

One legal expert thinks Depp will now find it more difficult in the U.S. court.

“The implications in this case are that if you lose the case in London, it’s almost a racing certainty that you’re not going to win in America,” said Mark Stephens, a media lawyer at Howard Kennedy.

Depp and Heard met on the set of 2011 comedy “The Rum Diary” and married in Los Angeles in 2015. They separated the following year and divorced in 2017.

Heard said she had spoken out reluctantly.

“What woman has ever benefited from being a victim of domestic violence?” she asked in court.

Lisa King, director of communications and external relations at the charity Refuge, which provides support for victims of domestic violence, expressed hope that the ruling sends “a very powerful message” that every single survivor of domestic abuse “should be listened to and should be heard.”

The Sun's Wootton said he hoped Depp gets “the help he so obviously needs” and thanked Heard for her bravery.

“This landmark court victory is for you Amber Heard, and it is for all the other victims of domestic abuse who I hope feel more comfortable and more safe with our court processes and with our media today,” he said.

Stephens, the media lawyer, called the decision “absolutely devastating" for Depp.

“Johnny Depp is only going to be able to rehabilitate himself if he accepts this judgment," he added.


Associated Press writer Danica Kirka contributed to this report.