John Steinbeck's Family Tree Dominates Day One of Heirs' Trial

Neither side is a blood relative, and both sides were at pains to point that out to the jury.
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John Steinbeck

There's only one known living descendant of prolific author John Steinbeck — and she isn't either of the women involved in the current trial over his intellectual property.

Steinbeck's stepdaughter, Waverly Scott Kaffaga, and his son's widow, Gail Knight Steinbeck, each testified in a Los Angeles courtroom Tuesday. There was a chill in the room, and not just because the air conditioning was on overdrive battling 100-degree temperatures.

There appears to be no love lost between the two women, neither of whom is a blood relative — a fact each of their respective attorneys pointed out about their opposition.

When Steinbeck died, he left control of his works like East of Eden and Grapes of Wrath to his third wife, Elaine Steinbeck. Kaffaga is her daughter from a prior relationship. Each of his sons from his previous marriage, Thom Steinbeck and John Steinbeck IV, received a $50,000 trust. Both of his sons are now deceased. Gail is Thom's wife. The author's lone blood relative is his granddaughter Blake Smyle, the daughter of John IV.

The legal feud spans decades. This iteration began in 2014 when Kaffaga sued Gail and Thom Steinbeck, and their company The Palladin Group, alleging they were interfering with her ability to turn her stepdad's famous books into new films. (One of them was slated to star Jennifer Lawrence, and another was set to be helmed by Steven Spielberg.) She sued for breach of contract, slander of title and intentional interference with economic advantage. U.S. District Judge Terry Hatter has already granted summary judgment in favor of Kaffaga on the first two. The jury of six will have to decide whether Gail really interfered with the film projects and what, if any, damages Kaffaga is owed on any of the claims.

Susan Kohlmann led off opening statements for Kaffaga's team. She began with the Steinbeck family history — including a much-needed family tree. She also showed the jury a timeline of deaths and legal battles — again, very helpful in a case such as this. In a nutshell, she argued that the various wills and settlements make clear Kaffaga now controls the intellectual property in dispute, but she hasn't been able to exploit it because every time a deal has been close to fruition Gail has contacted studio execs and threatened to muddy the waters.

"It's a good story that was just told," said Steinbeck's attorney Matthew Berger when he took over the podium. While this has been painted as a family feud, he said, Kaffaga is "not part of the same family" and is "not one of his heirs." He said his clients want the deals to go through and have "bent over backward" to ensure studios there's a clean chain of title to the works.

Berger also argued that any damages awarded would be purely speculative because period pieces, like Wrath and Eden, largely aren't profitable. The jury should view Kaffaga's damages expert as a "hired gun" who is paid to prove her point, he argued — noting that Steinbeck doesn't have an expert, in part, because she couldn't afford one.

After closings, Hatter instructed the jury of three men and three women that the attorneys' opening statements included a fair amount of argument but none of it should be treated as evidence.

First to take the stand was Kaffaga, a petite woman in her 80s wearing gray track pants, black sneakers with Velcro, a white shirt, scarf and glasses. She described her stepfather as someone who was deeply interested in the stories of American people and who "wrote quite a few books." Kaffaga was 12 when Steinbeck came into her life, she said. Thom was 5, and John IV was 3. Her mother was married to the author for two decades, until his death in 1968.

"She felt it was important that John not be forgotten," said Kaffaga of Elaine, adding that her mother passed her the rights to the IP upon her death. "I haven't been able to do what my mother wanted me to do, what John would have wanted me to do."

Gail's attorney Robert Graham handled Kaffaga's cross-examination. It was adversarial, to say the least, and began with questions about why Steinbeck's sons lived with their mother instead of him. Kaffaga didn't have the answers. He also pushed her on what exactly her role was in managing the IP if the late author's agency, McIntosh & Otis, negotiated the deals.

Kaffaga has said Gail negotiated a secret side agreement with DreamWorks regarding Spielberg's Wrath adaptation. Graham argued that it was merely an executive producer agreement for Thom. He pulled up a copy and asked Kaffaga if she saw the words "side deal" anywhere. He then pointedly asked, "Why would DreamWorks give Thom Steinbeck an executive producer credit and not you?" It remains to be seen how the jury will respond to the optics of a young attorney aggressively questioning an elderly woman.

Next, Kohlmann played segments of Thom's Feb. 2016 deposition, which was taken just six months before his death. Gail left the room as the video of her late husband was shown.

Thom said he didn't agree with Kaffaga handling his father's work. He also minimized his deal with DreamWorks. "Executive producers on these kinds of things are basically decorative," he said. "That's fluff. That's given away."

Gail was the third and final witness called Tuesday, one that Kohlmann had previously received Hatter's permission to treat as hostile. Despite that she kept a mostly positive demeanor, even cracking a few jokes throughout the afternoon. Although, she began with a little shade. When asked to spell her name for the court reporter, she said, "Steinbeck, like Grapes of Wrath. S-t-e-i-n-b-e-c-k."

Kohlmann quickly swiped back by pointing out that, like her client Kaffaga, Gail is also not a Steinbeck by blood — and noting that she'd never even met the author.

She testified that the Steinbeck books at issue bring in at least $120,000 a year in royalties to her husband's estate, of which she's the sole beneficiary. A 1983 settlement agreement between Elaine and Steinbeck's sons split that revenue into thirds. Prior to that deal, Elaine received half, while Thom and John IV each received a quarter. By Kohlmann's calculations, Thom and his estate have received more than a million dollars in additional royalties than they would have without the settlement.

Much of Gail's questioning centered on the idea of copyright termination and the degree to which she explored the option for Steinbeck's works. She "had to learn" about the topic, she said, adding "I was the only one protecting my husband and Blake." She is back on the stand tomorrow morning.

Some of the Hollywood A-listers who had initially been floated as witnesses (Ron Howard and James Franco, for example) are no longer expected to be called. Hatter has indicated he'd like the trial to wrap up by Friday, instead of lasting the 5-7 days that had been expected.

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