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Steve Wynn Vs. Joe Francis: Anatomy of a $40 Million Smackdown

In one of the odder defamation lawsuits in recent Hollywood history, Wynn calls "Girls Gone Wild" mogul Francis a "digital assassin" after a jury awards him millions in a decision that Francis vows to appeal.

Steve Wynn Joe Francis Split - H 2012
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Steve Wynn and Joe Francis

This story first appeared in the Sept. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Girls Gone Wild mogul Joe Francis is vowing to appeal a $40 million jury verdict in one of the odder defamation lawsuits in recent Hollywood history.

As celebrities well know, defamation cases rarely result in multimillion-dollar awards -- at least not in the U.S., which imposes high hurdles for those attempting to prove injury to public figures by speech. But when Francis, 39, was hauled into a Los Angeles court for allegedly running up a $2 million debt during a wild weekend at Steve Wynn's Las Vegas resort, he announced to a judge and a TMZ reporter that he needed a restraining order against the casino tycoon because "Wynn threatened to kill me. He said he would hit me in the back of the head with a shovel and bury me in a hole in the desert."

Wynn, fearful of what the Nevada Gaming Commission might think of such an explosive allegation, sued, and at trial he called legendary music producer (and Francis acquaintance) Quincy Jones to the stand. Francis claimed Jones told him about Wynn's threats, but Jones testified that wasn't true.

Francis' lawyer Aaron Aftergood attempted to battle back by portraying Wynn as a vengeful executive who routinely makes threats. To that end, jurors were shown a 1980s television interview in which Wynn appeared to threaten to choke Meredith Vieira.

But ultimately, the jury sided with Wynn, 70, determining that while convincing women to pull off their tops for a camera might count as free expression, falsely reporting a death threat does not. Wynn attorney Barry Langberg quickly declared vindication for his client, and Wynn released a statement Sept. 11 calling Francis "a new kind of criminal type: the digital assassin."

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

But Francis says he's "100 percent confident" he will prevail on appeal. He says anyone should be able to ask a judge for a restraining order without fear of the request being held over his head: "I was afraid for my life, and I only made that statement when I was ordered by a judge to do so."

Read Wynn's full statement below:

Joe Francis represents a new kind of criminal type: the digital assassin. He takes advantage of the protection afforded by the Internet to issue intentionally destructive charges against someone’s reputation, knowing full well that in the age of the Internet those statements will live forever.

His actions present a new challenge to society created by technology and the instantaneous news cycle.  The inflammatory information goes up instantly and stays forever, unchallenged and unproven, to the misery and detriment of any citizen that is a victim. The only remedy is a long road, an expensive road, to a trial before 12 fellow citizens. Most citizens don’t have the time or the resources to defend themselves and find the truth in a courtroom before a jury of their peers. 

In this case, with this unbelievably reckless human being, Joe Francis, I am a surrogate, a stand in, for all the people with any reputation or in any business, or even just a private citizen, who can be wildly attacked.

Thank God for the justice system that finally sent a message: if you think you’re taking a cheap shot, it may be a lot more expensive than you had imagined. Therefore, think before you post; think before you speak; hesitate before you start to destroy someone’s character. There may be a day of reckoning.