Johnny Depp has lost his libel claim against the publishers of The Sun over an article calling him a “wife beater”.
Three months after the high profile three-week trial, Judge Justice Nicol has now ruled that the tabloid’s report on allegations that Depp was violent towards ex-wife Amber Heard was “substantially true”.
The Hollywood star had sued over a column titled “Gone Potty: How can JK Rowling be ‘genuinely happy’ casting wife beater Johnny Depp in the new Fantastic Beasts film?” in April 2018, written by executive editor Dan Wootton.
During the hearing, the court was told of Depp’s extensive use of drink and drugs, read texts in which he called his ex-wife a “witch” and suggested burning her, and shown videos of him punching and hitting kitchen cupboards.
In his ruling, the judge said that while Depp, 57, “proved the necessary elements of his cause of action in libel”, News Group Newspapers (NGN) showed that what they published was “substantially true”.
Depp’s legal team have said they will appeal and that the decision is “as perverse as it is bewildering” and “flawed”.
NGN had relied on 14 separate allegations of domestic violence, dated between early 2013 and May 2016, in its defence to Depp’s claim. In his ruling, Mr Justice Nicol said he found that “a great majority” – 12 of the 14 – alleged incidents did occur.
The judge said that “a recurring theme in Mr Depp’s evidence was that Ms Heard had constructed a hoax and that she had done this as an ‘insurance policy’,” and that Ms Heard was a “gold-digger”.
But he added: “I do not accept this characterisation of Ms Heard.”
Following the ruling, a spokesman for The Sun said: “The Sun has stood up and campaigned for the victims of domestic abuse for over 20 years. Domestic abuse victims must never be silenced and we thank the judge for his careful consideration and thank Amber Heard for her courage in giving evidence to the court.”
Heard’s US lawyer Elaine Charlson Bredehoft said in a statement that the judgment was “not a surprise”.
Depp has always strenuously denied claims he was violent towards Heard in any way
UK law means the Hollywood star had to prove he had suffered “serious harm” to his reputation through the publication of the article, while NGN had to prove what they reported was true on the balance of probabilities.
Depp’s lawyers had argued that various factors – including his presentation in the article alongside disgraced producer Harvey Weinstein – meant that “only a very substantial award” would compensate and vindicate him.
In practice, there is a limit of £325,000 ($ 415,000) on general damages, however additional compensation could have been added for “aggravating” factors.
One such factor cited by Depp’s team was the fact The Sun retained the article on its website.
During the trial, the 14 allegations of domestic violence were combed through in court in forensic detail, with Heard as the paper’s star witness.
Alleged incidents included a private flight from Boston to LA, during which Depp was said to have slapped and kicked Heard before passing out in the toilet; a fight dubbed “disco bloodbath”, and what Heard claimed was a “three-day hostage situation” in Australia.
Depp’s team had countered the claims, alleging Heard was in fact violent towards him – which she denied.
One particularly contentious issue was the severing of the tip of Depp’s middle finger during the trip to Australia: he alleged this happened when Heard threw a vodka bottle at him, she said he injured himself while smashing a phone. Both agreed that following the argument, Depp dipped his wounded finger in paint and scrawled graffiti on mirrors and walls in the house.
In his ruling, Mr Justice Nicol concluded that Heard was not responsible for the injury, but said the exact cause was uncertain.
Depp was angry as a result of his belief that Heard was having an affair, and was stressed by “his dissatisfaction or concern about the Pirates Of The Caribbean series and with what he saw as his legacy”, the judge said.
He added: “Mr Depp did what he often did when subjected to stress: he drank alcohol excessively and used controlled drugs.”
While he said Heard’s description of the incident in Australia “was something of a hyperbole” as she “could have left the house”, the judge said he accepted “she was the victim of sustained and multiple assaults by Mr Depp in Australia”.
The three-week High Court trial attracted worldwide attention, with both Depp and Heard temporarily moving from their respective homes in France and America to attend the court in central London throughout.
Evidence given was not only damaging to Depp – the actor claimed Heard, 34, had “extra-marital affairs” with high-profile figures such as SpaceX chief executive Elon Musk and actor James Franco. Heard denied having any affairs while she was in the relationship.
Previously unreleased reality TV footage of Heard’s sister Whitney being questioned about a historic “altercation” with her elder sibling was also played to the court, and Depp’s team alleged Heard had changed key dates in her evidence in a bid to manipulate the case, frequently accusing her of “making things up as she went along”.
As the trial drew to a close, Heard stood outside on the steps of the High Court and said she stood by her evidence and would “place her faith in British justice”.
Depp and Heard met on the set of 2011 comedy The Rum Diary and married in February 2015.
In May 2016, Heard obtained a restraining order against the star after accusing him of abuse, which he denied.
They settled their divorce out of court in 2017, with Heard donating her $ 7m (£5.5m) settlement to charity.
Depp has brought a separate $ 50m (£39m) US defamation case against Heard over an opinion piece she wrote in The Washington Post in December 2018.
While he was not mentioned by name in the article, he believes it cost him a role in Disney’s Pirates Of The Caribbean reboot.
The trial, which will take place in Virginia – the state where the Washington Post is printed – has been pushed back due to coronavirus and will not take place until May 2021 at the earliest.
Heard’s lawyer Ms Bredehoft said that the actress’s team will “be presenting even more voluminous evidence in the US”.
She added: “We are committed to obtaining justice for Amber Heard in the US court and defending Ms Heard’s right to free speech.”
Jenny Afia, of Schillings law firm, who represented Mr Depp, said in a statement that the actor intends to appeal against the ruling.
“This decision is as perverse as it is bewildering,” she said.
“Most troubling is the judge’s reliance on the testimony of Amber Heard, and corresponding disregard of the mountain of counter-evidence from police officers, medical practitioners, her own former assistant, other unchallenged witnesses and an array of documentary evidence which completely undermined the allegations, point by point.
“All of this was overlooked. The judgment is so flawed that it would be ridiculous for Mr Depp not to appeal this decision.
“In the meantime, we hope that in contrast to this case, the ongoing libel proceedings in America are equitable, with both parties providing full disclosure rather than one side strategically cherry picking what evidence can and cannot be relied upon.”