Johnny Depp Loses Defamation Suit Over “Wife Beater” Story

Johnny Depp arrives at Royal Courts of Justice, July 07, 2020 in London, England - Getty-H 2020
Samir Hussein/WireImage

A U.K. judge on Monday delivered the much-anticipated opinion in the Johnny Depp defamation trial, which focused on the actor's troubled relationship with ex-wife Amber Heard.

"This claim is dismissed," the judge said in his judgment. "The claimant has not succeeded in his action for libel. Although he has proved the necessary elements of his cause of action in libel, the defendants have shown that what they published in the meaning which I have held the words to bear was substantially true. I have reached these conclusions having examined in detail the 14 incidents on which the defendants rely as well as the overarching considerations which the claimant submitted I should take into account. In those circumstances, Parliament has said that a defendant has a complete defense. It has not been necessary to consider the fairness of the article or the defendants’ ‘malice’ because those are immaterial to the statutory defense of truth. The parties will have an opportunity to make submissions in writing as to the precise terms of the order which should follow my decision."

Read the full ruling in Depp v. News Group Newspapers here.

Depp's lawsuit against News Group Newspapers, publisher of The Sun, is part of the fallout from his split with Heard, whom he was married to between 2015 and 2017. During the contentious divorce proceedings, her allegations of being the victim of abuse made noise worldwide and continues to be the subject of courtroom scrutiny in multiple cases including one in Virginia where Depp is directly suing Heard for defamation. Depp has consistently denied slapping her across the face, among various alleged acts, and in fact, has pointed his finger at Heard as being the culprit of physical wrongdoing.

Regardless of what actually occurred during their two-year marriage, Depp has faced an uncomfortable spotlight just as Hollywood began to reckon with sexual misconduct. That, in turn, has had career repercussions. For instance, Disney is working on a new Pirates of the Caribbean without Depp reprising his perhaps most famous character of Captain Jack Sparrow.

The U.K. dispute focused on an article in The Sun published on April 27, 2018. Dan Wootton, an editor at the paper, discussed ramifications of the #MeToo movement in a story originally headlined "How can JK Rowling be 'genuinely happy' casting wife-beater Johnny Depp in the new Fantastic Beasts film?"

The case went to trial in July, becoming one of the few live civil proceedings to happen in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to reports, five different courtrooms were used to accommodate social distancing. It featured testimony from both Depp and Heard, various friends and colleagues, law officers, and others. Observers to the trial heard all sorts of wild stories about the relationship from drug abuse to how he allegedly once spelled her name in urine after a violent fight, how she allegedly once took a poop on the couple's bed.

"There is no doubt that Mr. Depp regularly and systematically abused his wife," said Sasha Wass, an attorney for the newspaper in closing argument. "The characterization that he is a wife beater is entirely truthful."

David Sherborne, Depp's lawyer, took a different view of the evidence. "He has never hit a woman in his entire life — period, full stop, nada," he said during closing.

After hearing from both sides, the judge ultimately accepted Heard's testimony. The lengthy decision by Judge Andrew Nicol recounts the allegations of arguments and an angry and jealous spouse. At one point, he writes, "The argument and the damage to property are symptomatic of Mr Depp's manner when 'the monster' side of his personality was dominant. I also accept the evidence of Ms Heard that another aspect of 'the monster' was that Mr Depp physically assaulted her as she described."

The "monster" phrase comes up repeatedly in the judge's decision. "That expression was not a figment of Ms Heard's imagination," states the opinion. "I accept her evidence that Mr Depp used the term to refer to that part of his personality when, affected by drink and/or drugs he would do things which he would not otherwise do and of which he might have no recollection afterwards."

As for Heard's credibility, Depp's presentation of recordings that purportedly showed she was the real abuser in the relationship, and Heard's acknowledgment of getting physical (as a means of self defense, she said), Nicol added, "In my view no great weight is to be put on these alleged admissions by Ms Heard to aggressive violent behaviour."

Because this case occurred in the U.K., there was a particular emphasis on whether The Sun could establish any truth to the notion that Depp is a "wife-beater." In the United States, public figures must show actual malice — knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth — but on the other side of the Atlantic, English defamation standards are more loose. The mindset of the publisher doesn't matter as much. It may partially explain why Depp (wisely or not) seized on a U.K. tabloid's unflattering headline in an attempt to vindicate himself. Nevertheless, thanks to changes in defamation law in 2013 brought upon by a desire by lawmakers to make the country less of a tourist hotspot for plaintiffs, truth once again became a statuary defense to libel. In what may be seen as a victory for media outlets, Depp v. News Group Newspapers immediately becomes the signature example of such.

The judgment was in the hands of Judge Andrew Nicol, who interestingly was once a barrister who co-wrote a celebrated treatise on media law.