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Depp, Defamation, and the Business of Controversy

*The views expressed in this article do not represent the views of Santa Clara University.

"Depp and Heard at the Toronto International Film Festival" by GabboT CC BY-SA 2.0

The Depp v. Heard case *1 captivated audiences in a way that no case has in decades. Johnny Depp, accused of domestic violence, garnered support nationwide in his legal battle to establish that he was innocent of all accusations. In a surprising development in the wake of the #MeToo movement, Johnny Depp’s legal team was able to cast him in the role of the falsely accused, and the strategy paid off.

While cases of this sort tend to lead to extreme outcry and condemnation of the accused, Depp was able to dodge this through excellent legal representation combined with the aura of celebrity. Depp’s legal team performed excellently in winning on claims that are notoriously difficult to prove. More surprising is how widespread support was for Mr. Depp’s case. While his celebrity status certainly played a role, the willingness of the public to rally behind his cause potentially has wide-ranging implications for future defamation cases.

In the future, we could see high level executives and actors accused of this behavior push for a trial by jury. The results speak for themselves. Many people believe that the jury was star-struck by Depp and would have found in his favor regardless of what actually happened. This case could act as a template for A-list stars and media executives trying to defend themselves against accusations from the media: wow the jury with tales of grandeur and make them see the accused as a person above prosecution.

Even major news conglomerates have to fear accusations of libel if they publish articles that reflect a negative opinion of people. The Washington Post recently republished Heard’s article with alterations consistent with the decision, but even that could put the company at risk for litigation.

Regardless of anyone’s opinion on the case, this decision will make litigators feel more comfortable moving forward with their defenses if they believe the jury can be swayed by the presence of a superstar. Insurance rates might lessen, media executives might care less about their behavior, and people may be held more accountable for the things they say online.

Entertainment companies may also be more hesitant to act when these kinds of claims are levied against their famous employees.

There are talks of boycotting the upcoming Aquaman sequel because of the failure of Warner Bros. to replace or remove Amber Heard from the movie in the wake of the trial. The ensuing box office results will affect how studios react to a similar situation like this in the future. From a purely economic perspective, studios will now be forced to balance taking a moral stand on issues such as domestic violence and wanting to not affect their bottom line.

Since the trial, both Heard and Depp have appealed the respective $10.4 million and $2 million judgments against them. This followed Judge Penney Azcarate’s denial of Heard’s request for a mistrial, which was based on the allegation that a juror from the case was not called to be there. Judge Azcarate made clear that the juror “was vetted, sat for the entire jury, deliberated, and reached a verdict.”

If Depp intends to order payment of the damages, Heard will have to either pay or post bond. However, Heard’s lawyer, Elaine Charlson Bredehoft, has made it clear that Heard would likely not be able to make the payments, especially considering that she still owes close to $7 million to the American Civil Liberties Union. This means that Heard’s personal property, including real estate, jewelry, and personal items could be taken to cover the judgment. Alternatively, Heard could file for bankruptcy.

Photo by nicogenin - cropped version CC BY-SA 2.0

On the other hand, Depp could also choose not to enforce the judgment. It is possible that Depp’s team could offer to waive or lower the judgment in exchange for Heard’s team dropping their appeal. This bargaining chip could be used to end further litigation, thus bringing an end to the legal side of the controversy. However, Depp has not indicated whether or not he intends to enforce the judgment.

Outside of the case, Depp has publicly denounced returning to the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, a role that would have earned the actor $22.5 million for the sixth installation. He is still acting and directing, and recently signed a seven-figure deal with Dior to continue being the face of their

Sauvage cologne line, a position he has held since 2015.

Currently, their Sauvage fragrance is the best-selling men’s cologne on both and, with multiple positive reviews supporting Depp. With these developments and the potential implications they hold across the business, litigation, and entertainment landscape, this case will be far more impactful than just the pop culture and media frenzy that it generated.

Footnote Citations

  1. Depp v. Heard, 108 Va. Cir. 382 (2021).


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