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And the Award Goes to Who? Depp v. Heard Verdict Explained

By Jordan Walker, J.D. on June 06, 2022 10:39 AM

For weeks, people around the world watched the defamation trial between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard play out like a daytime soap opera. The suspense finally came to an end last week when the jury reached a verdict after three days of deliberation.

Depp filed his defamation lawsuit against his ex-wife for statements she made in a 2018 op-ed for The Washington Post claiming to be a victim of domestic abuse during their relationship. Heard countersued Depp claiming he defamed her with a "smear campaign" by repeatedly calling her a liar.

Depp prevailed on all counts and was awarded damages totaling $15 million. Heard lost most of her counterclaims but was awarded damages of $2 million for one count of defamation.

So what does the verdict mean? And if Depp won, why does he still have to pay Heard?

How Is a Verdict Reached?

After receiving instructions from the judge, jurors work together during a process known as "deliberation" to collectively review and analyze the evidence in an attempt to reach a final decision.

In this case, the jury received a "special verdict form" to fill out with their findings on the issues and determination of financial compensation. For either party to succeed, they had to prove defamation by establishing these elements:

  • The statements were made or published
  • The statements were false
  • The statements caused "injury"
  • The statements were made with "actual malice"

What the Verdict Means for Depp

Depp triumphed. The seven jurors ruled unanimously in his favor on three counts of defamation.

Count One

Heard's statement in The Washington Post's online edition:

"I spoke up against sexual violence – and faced our culture's wrath. That has to change."

Count Two

The statement in The Washington Post's printed and online editions:

"Then 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."

Count Three

The statement in The Washington Post's printed and online editions:

"I had the rare vantage point of seeing, in real time, how institutions protect men accused of abuse."

The jury concluded all these statements were about Depp, made or published by Heard, and false. The jury also ruled Heard engaged in "defamatory implication" by telling her story in a way that harmed Depp by leaving out certain facts, presumably multiple occasions of abuse Depp made against her in his testimony during the trial.

Finally, the jury found that Heard made the statements with "actual malice" by clear and convincing evidence, an additional requirement when the victim is a public figure.

What the Verdict Means for Heard

Heard's only win was over a statement made by Depp's former attorney, Adam Waldman, in the online edition of The Daily Mail on April 27, 2020, accusing Amber of making up abuse allegations in a 2016 call to the police after an incident at the former's couple home.

Why is Depp responsible for something he didn't say? Even though the statement didn't come directly from Depp, jurors found Waldman was acting as an "agent" for Depp, and therefore Depp was liable.

Damages

Compensatory damages are awarded to compensate an injured party for losses sustained as a direct result of an injury suffered. Depp was awarded $10 million and Heard $2 million.

Punitive damages are awarded for serious or malicious wrongdoing to punish the wrongdoer or deter others from committing similar acts. The jury awarded Depp $5 million (although the judge reduced that amount to $350,000) but completely denied Heard's request for punitive damages with the amount of $0.

When Hollywood and the Courtroom Collide

From the start of the trial, Depp has appeared as the likely victor, especially in the court of public opinion. Social media platforms such as TikTok became flooded with content supporting Depp and mocking Heard. Mega-pint, anyone?

So did the internet play a role in the outcome of this case and did the courtroom theatrics reestablish Depp's status as "The Sexiest Man Alive" and further his chances of achieving a career comeback? That remains to be seen, but it's become clear that the real star to emerge from this trial is Depp's attorney, Camille Vasquez.

Casting can make or break a production, and assigning Vasquez, a young, pretty, and seemingly wholesome brunette, to cross-examine Heard, a curvy "vixen" with blonde hair was a smart and effective strategic move. If the hashtags are any indication of Vasquez's growing celebrity status (#camillevasquezoutfits, #camillevasquezforpresident, etc.), Depp may have to remove her as counsel and get her an agent.

What Now?

With the trial over, are we facing the threat of a new pandemic? If you're experiencing feelings of hopelessness and emptiness that often follow the finish of a favorite Netflix show, you may be suffering from an affliction known as "post-series depression."

Drink lots of water and stay tuned because Heard's attorney revealed she is planning to appeal the verdict.

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