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Johnny Depp loses ‘wife beater’ libel case against The Sun

Written by on 2 November 2020

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 that Depp was violent towards ex-wife Amber Heard was “substantially true”.

The newspaper published 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 their executive editor Dan Wootton.

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Amber Heard was The Sun’s star witness, attending court every day
Johnny Depp arrives at the High Court a little later than usual on 17 July
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The three-week High Court trial attracted worldwide attention

In his ruling, the judge said that while Depp “proved the necessary elements of his cause of action in libel”, News Group Newspapers (NGN) showed that what they published was “substantially true”.

He said the “natural and ordinary meaning” of the article was that the actor “was guilty, on overwhelming evidence, of serious domestic violence against his then wife, causing significant injury and leading to her fearing for her life”.

Following the ruling from the judge, 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”.

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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 The Sun’s publisher News Group Newspapers (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.

Johnny Depp and Amber Heard: Who said what?

Johnny Depp and Amber Heard: Who said what?

In practice, there is a limit of GBP325,000 ($415,000) on general damages, however additional compensation can be added for “aggravating” factors.

One such factor cited by Depp’s team was the fact The Sun retained the article on its website throughout.

NGN had relied on 14 separate allegations of domestic violence, dated between early 2013 and May 2016, in its defence to Depp’s claim.

These accounts 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.

A picture from Johnny Depp's lawyers shows him in hospital after Amber Heard allegedly severed his finger with a vodka bottle and burnt his cheek with a cigarette
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Depp was taken to an Australian hospital in March 2015 with a severed finger
graffiti on a mirror in Australia at a house rented by Depp in 2015 while he was filming Pirates Of The Caribbean.
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The actor scrawled graffiti on a mirror with his blood and paint

Depp’s team had countered the claims, alleging Heard was in fact violent towards him, playing recordings in which she could be heard saying she had “hit” the 57-year-old actor.

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.

However, both agreed that following the argument, Depp dipped his wounded finger in paint and scrawled graffiti on mirrors and walls in the house.

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.

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Footage recorded by Heard showing Depp swearing and banging cupboards

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.

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”.

Amber Heard and James Franco at BMCC Tribeca PAC on April 16, 2015 in New York City
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Heard and James Franco pictured on the red carpet in New York in 2015

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 (GBP5.5m) settlement to charity.

Depp has brought a separate $50m (GBP39m) 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.”