John Steinbeck's Stepdaughter Awarded $13M by Jury in Heirs' Fight

Given the family's history of litigation, it remains to be seen if this verdict finally closes the book on Steinbeck courtroom battles.
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John Steinbeck

After a weeklong trial and just a few hours of deliberation, a Los Angeles jury has awarded $13.15 million to the stepdaughter of prolific writer John Steinbeck.

Waverly Scott Kaffaga, the daughter of Steinbeck's third wife Elaine, brought this lawsuit in 2014. She alleged she inherited control over the works at issue when her mother died and that the author's son Thom and his wife Gail Knight Steinbeck were blocking her ability to negotiate film adaptations of her stepfather's works, including East of Eden and Grapes of Wrath. Thom died last year, leaving his widow as the sole defendant on behalf of herself, his estate and their company The Palladin Group.

U.S. District Judge Terry Hatter in October granted summary judgment in favor of Kaffaga on her claims of breach of contract and slander of title, leaving the jury to decide whether Gail really interfered with the film projects and what, if any, damages Kaffaga is owed on any of the claims. (Read the backstory here.)

The jury held in favor of Kaffaga on the remaining issue and awarded her $5.25 million in compensatory damages — plus $7.9 million in punitive damages.

Kaffaga issued a statement Tuesday in response to the verdict in her capacity as executor for the estate of Elaine Steinbeck.

"We are pleased with the jury's verdict that recognizes the Estate's full control of the rights to John Steinbeck's works," she said. "The outcome upholds the Estate's mission of sharing his legacy with the world. We are thankful to the members of the jury for their time and service."

Gail also issued a statement and said she intends to appeal the verdict.  “On behalf of my late husband Thom, we are enormously disappointed in the jury’s decision," said Steinbeck. "The U.S. Copyright Office states very clearly that we own a large portion of the rights to the Steinbeck works and one cannot slander title of something one owns – something the jury could not understand since we were not allowed to present our case to them." 

Kaffaga was represented by attorneys from Jenner & Block. Steinbeck was represented by Matthew I. Berger Law Group.

Sept. 6, 11:30 a.m. Updated with a statement from Gail Knight Steinbeck.

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