U.K. court rules against Johnny Depp in libel action

A British court ruled Monday against Johnny Depp in his libel case against the owner of the Sun tabloid newspaper, which labelled him a "wife beater."

Actor filed suit over an April 2018 article that accused him of assaulting his ex-wife, Amber Heard

Actor Johnny Depp, seen here in February 2020, has lost his libel suit against News Group Newspapers, publisher of The Sun, and the newspaper's executive editor over an April 2018 article that accused him of assaulting his ex-wife, Amber Heard. (Markus Schreiber/The Associated Press)

Johnny Depp lost his high-stakes libel case Monday against The Sun tabloid newspaper for labelling him a "wife beater," as a judge said he believed the actor had abused his ex-wife and that she frequently feared for her life.

In a decision that has been cheered by campaigners against domestic abuse, Justice Andrew Nicol said the defendants had proved during the trial in London that their allegations against Depp were "substantially true." Depp's lawyers said they would appeal the decision.

Over the course of nearly three weeks this summer, Nicol had heard lurid — and irreconcilable — accounts from Depp and his ex-wife Amber Heard in which each accused the other of abuse.

"I have found that the great majority of alleged assaults of Ms. Heard by Mr. Depp have been proved to the civil standard," Nicol wrote in his ruling.

In arguably the biggest English libel trial of the 21st century, Depp sued News Group Newspapers, publisher of The Sun, and the newspaper's executive editor, Dan Wootton, over an April 2018 article that accused him of assaulting fellow actor Heard.

The ruling deals a big blow to Depp's reputation that could damage a lucrative movie career, which has seen the actor take the lead in some of the most popular family movies in recent times, from Edward Scissorhands to, most lucratively, the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. That comes with an indeterminate financial cost on top of the several million dollars in legal costs he will likely be required to pay following Monday's ruling.

A Johnny Depp fan dressed as Gellert Grindelwald — the character Depp plays in the third Fantastic Beasts movie, which is currently being filmed — reacts as he hears Depp had lost his libel case, outside the High Court in London. (Matt Dunham/The Associated Press)

A lawyer for Depp, 57, described the decision as "perverse as it is bewildering."

"The judgment is so flawed that it would be ridiculous for Mr. Depp not to appeal this decision," Jenny Afia said in a statement.

An attorney for Heard, meanwhile, said the verdict was "not a surprise" for anyone who followed the trial.

Historically, Britain's libel laws have been seen as favouring public figures and tough on media outlets and publishers.

The Sun called the decision a "stunning victory for press freedom."

Heavy drug use

At the heart of the Sun's characterization of Depp as a "wife-beater" were allegations it printed that the actor had assaulted Heard 14 times in locations around the world.

Heard, 34, said the abuse was largely fuelled by Depp's heavy drug and alcohol use and that he could turn into "a self-created third party," which he referred to as "The Monster." She alleged that at various time between 2013 and 2016 he hit, slapped and shoved her, pulled her hair and threw bottles "like grenades" at her.

Nicol noted several instances in which Heard feared for her life, including a "three-day hostage situation" that Heard said took place in Australia in March 2015 while Depp was filming a Pirates of the Caribbean movie.

"I accept her evidence of the nature of the assaults he committed against her," the judge wrote about the episode in Australia. "They must have been terrifying."

Amber Heard, left, and Depp arrive at the 27th annual Palm Springs International Film Festival Awards Gala in Palm Springs, Calif., in January 2016. (Jordan Strauss/Invision/The Associated Press)

In court, Depp accused Heard of making up her allegations, while acknowledging wide-ranging drug problems. However, he insisted that he is "not a violent person, especially with women," a characterization that was backed up by former partners Winona Ryder and Vanessa Paradis.

The judge found that 12 instances of domestic violence had occurred and said that was sufficient to rule against Depp.

He also accepted Heard's evidence that the allegations she made against one of the world's most popular actors have "had a negative effect on her career as an actor and activist."

Depp's suit against Heard pending

Depp argued that the allegations caused "serious harm" to his reputation and "significant distress and embarrassment." His lawyers said the case was about clearing his reputation and nothing to do with any potential financial award — in the U.K., there's a notional ceiling of around 300,000 pounds ($515,000 Cdn) on libel awards, small in comparison to those possible in the U.S.

Depp is also suing Heard for $50 million US in Virginia over a Washington Post op-ed essay that she wrote about domestic violence.

The essay talks about her experience being abused but does not name Depp. The trial is due to be held next year.

"Very soon, we will be presenting even more voluminous evidence in the U.S.," said Elaine Charlson Bredehoft, Heard's attorney in the U.S.

WATCH | Johnny Depp's reputation likely the biggest loser at libel trial:

Johnny Depp’s reputation likely the biggest loser at libel trial

3 years ago
Duration 2:12
A U.K. judge will determine whether the Sun tabloid libelled actor Johnny Depp by calling him a wife beater, but Depp’s reputation may not recover regardless of the trial’s outcome.

Afia, who represents Depp, said that "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."

One legal expert thinks Depp will now find it more difficult in the U.S. court.

"The implications in this case are that if you lose the case in London, it's almost a racing certainty that you're not going to win in America," said Mark Stephens, a media lawyer at the London-based law firm Howard Kennedy.

Depp and Heard met on the set of 2011 comedy The Rum Diary and married in Los Angeles in 2015. They separated the following year and divorced in 2017.

Heard said she had spoken out reluctantly.

"What woman has ever benefited from being a victim of domestic violence?" she asked in court.

'A very powerful message'

Lisa King, director of communications and external relations at the charity Refuge, which provides support for victims of domestic violence, expressed hope that the ruling sends "a very powerful message" that every single survivor of domestic abuse "should be listened to and should be heard."

Wootton of The Sun newspaper said he hoped Depp gets "the help he so obviously needs" and thanked Heard for her bravery.

"This landmark court victory is for you Amber Heard, and it is for all the other victims of domestic abuse who I hope feel more comfortable and more safe with our court processes and with our media today," he said.

Stephens, the media lawyer, called the decision "absolutely devastating" for Depp.

"Johnny Depp is only going to be able to rehabilitate himself if he accepts this judgment," he said.