Johnny Depp loses libel case against U.K. tabloid that called him a 'wife beater'

Taryn Ryder
·Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
·6 min read

Johnny Depp was just dealt a big legal blow in the U.K. — and Amber Heard may have gotten a boost in the court of public opinion.

Just over three months after Depp’s explosive courtroom showdown with his ex-wife, the judge ruled it is not libelous to say he’s a “wife beater.” The Pirates of the Caribbean star sued News Group Newspapers (NGN), owner of the Sun, and the tabloid’s executive editor, Dan Wootton, over a 2018 article that referred to “overwhelming evidence” he attacked Heard during their relationship. Depp has long denied the actress’s claims of domestic abuse.

Johnny Depp attending the first day of his court case against The Sun in London on July 28. (Tayfun Salci/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Johnny Depp attending the first day of his court case against The Sun in London on July 28. (Tayfun Salci/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

“This claim is dismissed,” High Court Judge Andrew Nicol said in his judgment, which was delivered in writing, without a hearing, because of the coronavirus pandemic. “The claimant has not succeeded in his action for libel. Although he has proved the necessary elements of his cause of action in libel, the defendants have shown that what they published in the meaning which I have held the words to bear was substantially true. I have reached these conclusions having examined in detail the 14 incidents on which the defendants rely as well as the overarching considerations which the claimant submitted I should take into account. In those circumstances, Parliament has said that a defendant has a complete defense. It has not been necessary to consider the fairness of the article or the defendants’ ‘malice’ because those are immaterial to the statutory defense of truth. The parties will have an opportunity to make submissions in writing as to the precise terms of the order which should follow my decision.”

Nicol also wrote, “I have found that the great majority of alleged assaults of Ms. Heard by Mr. Depp have been proved to the civil standard,” meaning the claims are more likely than not to be true.

Depp’s British law firm Schillings said in a statement on Monday: “This decision is as perverse as it is bewildering. 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.”

Amber Heard leaving court on July 28 after giving a statement. (Reuters/Simon Dawson/File Photo)
Amber Heard leaving court on July 28 after giving a statement. (Reuters/Simon Dawson/File Photo)

The statement then referenced Depp’s defamation case against Heard over her 2018 Washington Post op-ed about domestic violence.

“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,” the statement concluded.

Heard’s legal team is not surprised by the outcome.

“For those of us present for the London High Court trial, this decision and judgment are not a surprise,” Heard’s U.S. attorney, Elaine Charlson Bredehoft, told Yahoo Entertainment in a statement. “Very soon, we will be presenting even more voluminous evidence in the U.S. We are committed to obtaining justice for Amber Heard in the U.S. Court and defending Ms. Heard's right to free speech.”

It’s a big moment in Depp and Heard’s he-said-she-said battle that has played out in public for years. Each star has accused the other of domestic violence, but whether Depp abused Heard was at the heart of the three-week trial. The Aquaman actress was NGN’s and Wootton’s star witness, as the defense relied on her accusations.

“What he did to Amber Heard was to beat her. The description of him in the online article in the Sun newspaper is correct, true and accurate,” attorney Sasha Wass told the court in her opening statement, explaining they “will demonstrate the description of Mr. Depp as a ‘wife beater’ is entirely accurate and truthful.”

Heard testified about 14 alleged instances of abuse between 2013 and 2016, including a “three-day hostage” situation in Australia.

“Some incidents were so severe that I was afraid he was going to kill me, either intentionally or just by losing control and going too far. He explicitly threatened to kill me many times, especially later in our relationship,” Heard alleged, claiming Depp said “death was the only way out” of the marriage.

Heard filed for divorce in 2016 after one year of marriage. They began dating in 2011 after meeting on the set of The Rum Diary.

The physical abuse, according to the actress, “included punching, slapping, kicking, head-butting and choking me, as well as throwing me into things, pulling me by my hair, and shoving me or pushing me to the ground. He threw things at me, especially glass bottles.”

Heard claimed most of the abuse happened when Depp was “drunk or high on drugs, which was often,” putting the actor’s substance abuse issues in the spotlight.

Depp testified that while he has taken “every drug known to man” he is not the “monster” Heard made him out to be. In the actor’s sworn statements, he claimed Heard had “an agenda” in marrying him, pursuing a relationship in order to “progress her own career.”

“She was beautiful, seemingly incredibly interested in me and my work, and I fell for it,” Depp declared. “She bombed me with what appeared to be love. It was not until much later that I understood that she had an agenda, namely to get married to me in order to progress her own career and/or to benefit financially, and she knew how to bring it about.”

He added: “She knew what she wanted, and I was an easy target.”

Depp denied all of Heard’s abuse claims, insisting she was the aggressor throughout their relationship. He even alleged she was the one responsible for his severed finger.

Depp’s attorney, David Sherborne, argued in court the actor “is not and never has been a wife beater.” He claimed Depp’s libel lawsuit is “not a case about money” but about “vindication.” According to Sherborne, Depp came to “clear his reputation,” maintaining Heard “invented these stories of serious violence” and that she was the “abuser” in the relationship.

While the ruling is a win for Heard, the former spouses have their next showdown looming.

Depp sued Heard for defamation in Virginia, over the Washington Post op-ed, and is seeking $50 million. The judge recently ordered the actor to sit for a deposition, despite his request to delay the trial. Libel laws are different in the U.S. versus the U.K., so this case is not a slam dunk for Heard. The trial, as of now, is expected to take place Jan. 11 through Jan. 28, 2021.

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