Johnny Depp faces being cast into the Hollywood wilderness after his libel case ended in “unmitigated disaster” when a judge upheld claims that he was a wife-beater. The star, 57, sued a newspaper after an article alleged he had attacked ex-wife Amber Heard, which he denies. The actress, 34, gave testimony during a three-week trial in July in which she spoke of drug and alcohol-fuelled abuse and violence – while Depp insisted she was a hoaxer and a gold-digger. But at the High Court yesterday, Mr Justice Nicol dismissed the claim against The Sun’s publisher, News Group Newspapers, saying the article’s content had been proven “substantially true”.
Depp is set to appear in the new Fantastic Beasts film, which Warner Bros and JK Rowling are behind. It has just started shooting in London. However, experts now warn film bosses may shun him and he faces a fight to salvage his career. Reputation management lawyer Mark Stephens said the ruling was “immensely damaging” and the only way the Pirates of the Caribbean icon can bounce back is to admit his issues and get treatment.
He said: “It’s very difficult to see how children’s authors like JK Rowling or children’s entertainment companies like Disney can continue to promote somebody who is a wife-beating drug (user) – and that, I think, is going to be the problem that he has to deal with.”
Another source agreed, adding: “Some of Johnny’s major earners are family movies. It may be more difficult for Hollywood studios to give him the benefit of the doubt by casting him.”
And Nathan Capone, a dispute resolution lawyer at firm Fieldfisher, said: “Because The Sun was defending Depp’s claim based on truth, one party’s reputation was inevitably going to be vindicated while the other’s was tarnished as a result of the judgment. For Depp, this is an unmitigated disaster. Not only have the allegations that he was claiming to be false been held to be substantially true, but he must also foot the bill for The Sun’s legal costs.” It is thought the case’s legal costs will be between Sh300 million and Sh500 million.
Charity Refuge added to the pressure on Depp by saying it “stands in solidarity” with Ms Heard, adding: “This is an important ruling and one we hope sends a very powerful message. Every survivor of domestic abuse should be listened to and should be heard.”
Mr Justice Nicol found that 12 of the 14 alleged incidents of domestic violence relied on by NGN did occur. He said Depp put Ms Heard “in fear of her life” during what she described as a “three-day hostage situation” in Australia in March 2015, as well as on the Eastern and Oriental Express in South East Asia that August and again in LA in December of the same year. But last night Depp’s solicitor, Jenny Afia, from Schillings law firm, branded the ruling flawed and vowed to appeal.
She said: “This decision is as perverse as it is bewildering. Most troubling is the judge’s reliance on the testimony of Amber Heard and corresponding disregard of counter-evidence from police officers, medical practitioners, her own former assistant, other unchallenged witnesses and an array of documentary evidence which undermined the allegations. All of this was overlooked. The judgment is so flawed that it would be ridiculous for Mr Depp not to appeal.”
Depp also launched action against his ex-wife last year in the US after she wrote a piece in the Washington Post claiming to be a domestic abuse victim. And Amber Melville-Brown, of London law firm Withersworldwide, believes the High Court ruling could affect the US proceedings. She said: “Not only will the extensive evidence in the case ‘over here’ be dissected ‘over there’ but this judgment may stop the US proceedings in their tracks.”
She said while the accusations in the US case may be “slightly different” the burden of proof in English libel courts is “much higher” than in the US. In the ruling, Mr Justice Nicol said: “I have found the great majority of alleged assaults of Ms Heard by Mr Depp have been proved to the civil standard.”
This means they were considered proven on the balance of probabilities rather than beyond reasonable doubt. Mr Justice Nicol also said “a recurring theme in Mr Depp’s evidence was Ms Heard had constructed a hoax ... and she was a “gold-digger”. But he added: “I do not accept this characterisation.”
He also said Ms Heard donating her Sh761 million settlement to charity was “hardly the act of a gold-digger”.
Ms Heard’s US lawyer, Elaine Charlson Bredehoft, said: “For those present for the London trial, this decision and judgment are not a surprise. Very soon, we will be presenting even more voluminous evidence in the US.”