• The Hollywood Reporter on LinkedIn
  • Follow THR on Pinterest
SEP
10
2 YEARS

Jury Orders 'Girls Gone Wild' Creator Joe Francis to Pay Casino Mogul Steve Wynn $20 Million for Defamation

Francis, who plans to appeal, tells THR, "I'm startled by the jury's verdict"; Wynn's legal team is happy with jury's "loud" verdict.

Steve Wynn Joe Francis Split - H 2012
Getty Images

Casino mogul Steve Wynn has decisively won his defamation lawsuit against Girls Gone Wild creator Joe Francis.

A jury has ordered Francis to pay $20 million for comments the soft-core porn impresario first uttered in a courtroom. "Wynn threatened to kill me," Francis had said. "He said he would hit me in the back of the head with a shovel and bury me in a hole in the desert."

Francis repeated the purported threats to a TMZ reporter and on ABC's Good Morning America.

A jury has deemed these statements to be slanderous and worth a huge sum. The penalty could grow much larger as the parties reconvene in court to argue over punitive damages.

The strange case began as part of a gambling debt.

In 2009, Francis refused to pay $2 million owed to Wynn’s Las Vegas casino, leading Wynn to collect from his debtor in a California court.

During one of the hearings in this initial dispute, Francis reportedly leapt to his feet to tell the judge about the death threats. TMZ picked up the story. Reporter Michael Amormino later testified in the defamation case he was "taken aback" by Francis' accusations and had Francis repeat the statement outside the courtroom.

One of the star witnesses in Wynn's defamation case was music legend Quincy Jones. Francis claimed Jones, one of his neighbors, showed him e-mails that suggested Wynn wanted him dead. But Jones, who overcame a medical condition to testify, flat out denied it at trial.

"Did you ever tell Joe Francis you had e-mails where Steve Wynn said he would hit him over the head with a shovel and bury him in the desert, or words to that effect?" Wynn's lawyer Barry Langberg asked.

"Where are these e-mails?" Jones responded. "I keep hearing about e-mails. I've never seen any."

The jury believed Wynn, whose legal team based the amount of damages on the fact that Nevada heavily regulates the gaming industry and that Francis' comments could have an adverse effect on the casino mogul's business.

"What's particularly heartening is that the jury really got -- especially in this day of electronic media -- when someone strikes at your reputation, their mouths are rarely done speaking because it has international impact," Langberg, a partner at Brownstein Hyatt, tells The Hollywood Reporter. "Even though you can't prove lost business, the jury recognized that it was important to have a verdict that could be as loud as the original statement."

After being ordered to pay $20 million, Francis says he plans to appeal.

"I'm startled by the jury's verdict because it's totally unfounded and the evidence does not support it," he tells THR via e-mail.

Francis believes his statement about Wynn was privileged because he says it was in reaction to the direction of the judge in the debtor litigation. He is particularly upset that the judge in the defamation case allowed Wynn to pursue statements Francis made on Good Morning America. Those comments alone were worth $11 million in damage, according to the jury's estimation.

"California law is very clear," says Francis. "You can't add a cause of action at the end of trial about something that had nothing to do with the trial. Therefore, we are 100 percent confident this jury verdict will be reversed on appeal."

But first will come the full toll. The next part of the trial to consider punitive damages begins Tuesday. Langberg believes that because a jury has arrived at a figure meant to compensate Wynn for the false statements, it's time to expand the damages as "punishment" in order to ensure that it never happens again.

Says Langberg, "I don't think the jury took too well to the notion that Joe Francis lied to their faces and that Quincy, not in the best of health, had to come in to show that."

E-mail: eriq.gardner@thr.com; Twitter: @eriqgardner