Pirates of the Caribbean star Depp, 58, has filed a $50 million lawsuit against Heard, 35, alleging that she defamed him in an opinion piece published by The Washington Post in 2018. Heard has countersued for $100 million.
The latest trial, which started on Monday in Virginia, comes less than two years after Depp lost a 2020 libel case against British tabloid The Sun, which had labeled the actor a “wife-beater” in reference to Heard’s allegations of domestic abuse.
Heard accused Depp of domestic abuse during their divorce proceedings in 2016. The stars, who wed in 2015, had their union officially dissolved in January 2017, months after Heard filed for divorce from Depp.
While Depp had repeatedly denied ever having been violent to Heard during the three-week trial in London, the overseeing judge found that the U.K. publication’s claims that the actor was abusive to Heard were “substantially true.”The fallout soon followed for Depp, who was “asked to resign” from Fantastic Beasts 3, in which he was set to reprise his role as Gellert Grindelwald. He was subsequently replaced by Mads Mikkelsen.
While questions linger over why Depp would willingly face the financial cost and further risk of reputational damage with his latest lawsuit, California First Amendment attorney Jeff Lewis told Newsweek that he is making the right move.
“The expense is inconsequential to Depp compared to the potential to regain his movie career,” said Lewis, founder of Jeff Lewis Law. “And keep in mind, unlike England, we here in the U.S. have a rule that each side bears their own attorney’s fees.
“So if Depp loses, he will not have to pay Heard’s attorneys fees and vice versa. As such it is relatively easy to calculate the monetary investment needed to go to trial—and appeal.”
Robert Downey Jr.
Lewis continued: “The reason Depp is moving forward is the millions of dollars that can be made in movies if his name is cleared.
“Recall that Robert Downey Jr.’s career was in the pits for a long time before Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes came out. This trial—and a positive verdict for Depp—can accelerate the recovery curve and get Depp back into the business.”
Between 1996 and 2001, Downey Jr. was infamously arrested on numerous occasions on drug-related charges. After unsuccessful trips to drug treatment programs, the actor eventually turned his life around through rehab in 2001. He later went on to enjoy the most successful years of his career.
Speaking with Newsweek, Lewis said of Depp: “Getting his name cleared in court is the only way to regain his career. Given the damage that happened in the last trial, Depp’s reputation can only improve and certainly cannot appreciably decline.”
A host of celebrities have been called upon to testify in the trial, including Elon Musk, James Franco, Paul Bettany, and Ellen Barkin. Would such star power on the witness stand have an effect on jurors’ final verdict? Lewis believes so.
“Each side will likely try to outshine the other with celebrity witnesses to sway the jury,” the attorney said. “Each juror brings into the jury room their own views about celebrities for better or worse and the high profile witnesses that testify will have a big impact.
“Expect that jurors will be interviewed after the trial about what impacted their verdict the most and I expect that the testimony of celebrities will be in the top 3.”
However, for those rubbing their hands together expecting to see a host of stars descend on the courthouse in Fairfax, Lewis explained that a lot of the time names can be added to witness lists as a tactic.
“Keep in mind, it is common for trial lawyers to include many names on witness lists that are ‘just in case,'” Lewis said. “Some of these celebrity witnesses may never testify. Sometimes adversaries include names on the list with the idea of having the other side waste time, energy, and legal fees to prepare for a witness who never testifies.”
Depp is suing Heard on account of her 2018 op-ed, in which she stated that she had been the victim of domestic violence. While Heard didn’t directly name Depp, the actor said that it was clear he was the one being referred to in the article. The trial is taking place in Virginia due to its proximity to the Post‘s headquarters.
“Depp was smart to file in Virginia—as opposed to California—which has a much stronger anti-SLAPP law and would have delayed a trial for many years,” Lewis told Newsweek. “Heard tried to get the case moved to California, no doubt due to our strong anti-SLAPP law here, but was not able to get that done.”
SLAPP stands for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. This means that Heard can argue to a jury that she should be protected from a libel lawsuit because the article was on a topic that is deemed to be a matter of public interest.
“Another interesting thing to watch in this trial is jury instructions,” said Lewis. “Virginia has a relatively new anti-SLAPP law that can provide Heard with a defense. It will be interesting to see how the judge instructs the jury on this law.
“California’s anti-SLAPP law is different. Rather than providing immunity at the end to the trial, California’s law allows a defendant to get a quick dismissal at the start of the lawsuit.
“I don’t there are many cases decided in Virginia’s appellate courts about the anti-SLAPP law. Whoever appeals the result of this trial, will likely start their arguments by arguing that there was error with how the jury was instructed regarding immunity and SLAPP.”