On Wednesday, June 1, American actor Johnny Depp won his defamation trial against his former wife Amber Heard, with Heard also losing the majority of her countersuit. Watched by millions, the televised court battle is one of the most famous defamation cases of all time, with the hashtag #justiceforjohnnydepp receiving around 19 billion views on TikTok. But what’s the story behind the Johnny Depp vs Amber Heard trial? And what other high profile defamation trials have caused a stir in recent years?
Johnny Depp vs Amber Heard
After marrying at a private ceremony in 2015, Johnny Depp and Amber Heard split the following year. Two years later, in 2018, Heard wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post in which she described her experience of domestic violence, though did not mention Depp’s name.
“I became a public figure representing domestic abuse, and I felt the full force of our culture’s wrath for women who speak out,” Heard wrote. “We have an opening now to bolster and build institutions protective of women. For starters, Congress can reauthorise and strengthen the Violence Against Women Act.”
Following the publication of Heard’s op-ed, Depp sued Heard for defamation, seeking $50 million in damages. Depp claimed Heard was not the victim of domestic abuse, but instead the perpetrator, though 2020 saw Depp lose a UK libel lawsuit against the Sun over an article in which the British tabloid called him a “wife-beater.”
In 2021, Heard countersued for $100 million, claiming that she was only ever violent toward Depp in defence of herself or her sister. The countersuit centred on three comments that Depp’s former lawyer Adam Waldman made to the Daily Mail in 2020, in which he called Heard’s allegations of abuse a “hoax.”
On April 11 2022, the Depp vs Heard defamation trial began, with both Heard and Depp appearing in court in Fairfax County, Virginia. Depp’s lawyers worked to deconstruct Heard’s claims of abuse, while Heard’s lawyers focused on Depp’s past drug and alcohol use, as well as text messages and recordings, claiming Depp was violent toward his ex-wife.
Several weeks later, on June 1, the jury unanimously found that Heard could not prove her claims against her former husband and that she knew her claims of abuse were false when she published her op-ed in 2018. Depp was awarded $10 million in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages.
The jury also ruled that Depp, through his former lawyer, defamed Heard on one count and Heard was awarded $2 million in compensatory damages, though nothing in punitive damages.
“From the very beginning, the goal of bringing this case was to reveal the truth, regardless of the outcome,” Depp said in a statement.
“Speaking the truth was something that I owed to my children and to all those who have remained steadfast in their support of me. I feel at peace knowing I have finally accomplished that.”
JK Rowling vs Daily Mail
In 2014, JK Rowling sued British newspaper the Daily Mail for publishing an article claiming the Harry Potter author was lying about a story she had told in an article for the single parents’ charity, Gingerbread.
In the article, Rowling revealed her experience of being stigmatised by members of her church for being a single mother. Soon after the article was published, the Daily Mail released a piece suggesting the author had made false claims against the church members, titled “How JK’s sob story about her single mother’s past surprised and confused the church members who cared for her.”
When Rowling sued the Daily Mail for libel, it was forced to pay her “substantial damages” and was required to issue a public apology:
“Our September 28, 2013 article ‘How JK’s sob story about her single mother past surprised and confused the church members who cared for her’ suggested that JK Rowling made a knowingly false and inexcusable claim in an article for the Gingerbread charity that people at her church had stigmatised her and cruelly taunted her for being a single mother,” the Daily Mail wrote.
“In fact, Mrs Rowling recounted only one incident where a visitor to the church stigmatised and taunted her on a particular day. We accept that Ms Rowling’s article did not contain any false claims and apologise for any contrary suggestion and have agreed to pay substantial damages to Ms Rowling, which she is donating to charity, and a contribution to her legal costs.”
Brangelina vs News Of The World
In 2010, American actors and then-husband and wife Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie filed a complaint following a series of articles in News Corp’s magazines, claiming the couple were divorcing. The publication printed a front-page story on the couple and went as far as to suggest that they had already met with divorce lawyers to begin thrashing out a deal to divide their assets of £205 million.
Pitt and Jolie brought their libel action through London lawyers Shillings against News Group Newspapers, the News International subsidiary that publishes the News of the World.
After the courts ruled in favour of the celebrity couple, News Corp admitted that its stories had been based on falsehood and agreed to pay an unrevealed sum of money in damages and legal fees to a charity of the couple’s choice.
“When the News of the World failed to publicly retract the allegations and apologise for them – thereby leaving their readers in the dark as to the true position – the couple felt they had no alternative than to sue,” Schillings commented post-trial.
“Today’s victory marks the end of the litigation brought by Brad and Angelina.”