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Will Depp, Kardashian Defamation Dramas Spur A Wave of New Lawsuits?

August 11, 2022 (3 min read)

Millions of Americans this spring were eagerly awaiting daily TV news updates and refreshing social media feeds to stay on top of the latest developments in two high-drama lawsuits.

The star litigants? In one case, it was a plaintiff who played a swashbuckling pirate in Disney movies; in the other case, it was four defendants who are part of America’s most famous reality TV family.

The Johnny Depp-Amber Heard courtroom drama became the topic of widespread fascination, with Americans watching live feeds of the trial and devouring daily commentary from legal experts about the day’s riveting testimony.

A Virginia jury ultimately awarded Depp $10 million $10 million in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages on June 1 for his three defamation claims against Heard. The jury found actual malice by Heard based on a trio of statements she made in a 2018 op-ed published in the Washington Post, implying that Depp abused her.

At the same time the Depp-Heard trial was taking place, another high-profile defamation case was being heard on the other side of the country involving Kris Jenner, Kim Kardashian, Khloe Kardashian and Kylie Jenner.

The reality TV stars were defendants in a Los Angeles courtroom, where they were being sued by Angela White (aka influencer Blac Chyna) for allegedly defaming her to E! network executives by claiming that she abused Rob Kardashian — her ex-fiancé and another member of the famous reality TV family. On May 2, the jury found that none of the family members defamed White and did not interfere with her contract by convincing the network to cancel a TV show.

The winning legal teams in each case, who joined their clients in the public spotlight during the trials, have been lauded for their work in the respective courtrooms.

Ben Chew and Camille Vasquez, the lawyers who represented Depp, took a post-trial victory lap with appearances on ABC’s “Good Morning America” and NBC’s “The Today Show” — and Vasquez was subsequently elevated to partner at Brown Rudnick.

Meanwhile, Cooley’s winning litigation team of Mike Rhodes and Michelle Doolin were featured in the cleverly titled “Keeping Up with Cooley: How Tech’s Favorite Litigators Won a Major Defamation Trial for the Kardashian-Jenner Family,” published by Litigation Daily.

In the aftermath of these two high-profile courtroom dramas, legal observers are questioning whether the sudden education that millions of Americans just obtained in defamation law will possibly lead to a new wave of litigation. In particular, the Depp-Heard case outcome has some experts raising interesting questions about the potential of copycat defamation cases being filed and the possible corresponding impact on public speech.

Law360 reported that “Johnny Depp’s $15 million defamation victory against ex-wife Amber Heard could chill participation in public discussions, including by lawyers who attack their clients’ accusers in the media,” according to First Amendment law experts.

Jeff McFarland, an entertainment litigator at McKool Smith with defamation litigation expertise, is one legal professional who has deep concern about the Depp-Heard verdict’s effect on the public square. Heard never mentioned Depp’s name in her Washington Post op-ed and the article focused on legislative reforms, as well as Heard’s new status as an ambassador for the American Civil Liberties Union. Mr. McFarland is troubled that, given the trial’s outcome, defamation claims represent a new threat to ordinary people.

“That’s the concern, it’s going to chill people,” he told Law360. “That everyday folks or businesspeople that experience something similar and talk about it could end up in the same position is, to me, the concerning aspect of it. There was no mention of his name.”

Other legal practitioners pointed to the Depp-Heard verdict as a potential trigger for a surge in defamation lawsuits.

Heather Heidelbaugh, leader of the defamation, libel and slander practice at Leech Tishman Fuscaldo & Lampl, said she has been in practice for decades and has seen a dramatic rise in defamation cases within the last eight to 10 years. She feels the Depp-Heard verdict could help continue that trend.

“On a global scale, people were watching this,” Heidelbaugh said. “And they are fully cognizant that you better be careful what you say. It should be the truth, especially if you’re accusing people of crimes, because you can be brought to court and really face the wrath of a jury.”

Litigation professionals can make sure they are prepared for a potential surge in defamation lawsuits by having access to tools and resources that keep them up to speed on relevant statutes and case law. LexisNexis Practical Guidance, available exclusively on Lexis+, maintains a 50-state Defamation State Law Survey chart that addresses elements of defamation, libel and slander, including both civil and criminal liability.

For more information about Lexis+ or to experience it first-hand, please click here for a free seven-day trial.