Johnny Depp has lost a high profile libel lawsuit against Rupert Murdoch’s News Group Newspapers over claims he was a “wifebeater” in what lawyers describe as the libel trial of the century.
The Pirates of the Caribbean star sued the UK’s Sun newspaper over an article published in 2018 that claimed he beat ex-wife Amber Heard and questioned his fitness to appear in JK Rowling’s new Fantastic Beasts film.
The allegations were aired at an explosive libel trial in London’s High Court in July with Mr Depp, 57, claiming that he had suffered “significant reputational damage”.
News Group Newspapers, which publishes the Sun, argued that the claims were true and called upon Ms Heard to testify that Mr Depp had attacked her on 14 occasions.
In his ruling on Monday Mr Justice Nicol dismissed Mr Depp’s claim and said he accepted “the great majority of alleged assaults of Ms Heard by Mr Depp have been proved” to the standard of proof required by Britain’s civil courts. The judge said he concluded what the Sun wrote was “substantially true”.
The ruling undermines London’s reputation for being a claimant-friendly jurisdiction where the wealthy can easily sue publications under Britain’s strict libel laws.
The number of high profile libel trials has been falling since the 2013 Defamation Act, which was designed to slash the number of vexatious claims brought against publishers. Now lawyers say that celebrities are increasingly using privacy laws to take action against the media.
Caroline Kean, partner at law firm Wiggin, said: “This was a high stakes case for the publishers, which if Amber Heard had not been prepared to testify in court they might never have won.”
The trial at London’s Royal Courts of Justice gave an extraordinary glimpse into the volatile relationship of Mr Depp and Ms Heard, who married in 2015 and divorced a year later.
Mr Depp spent five days in the witness box being cross examined on his personal life and his drink and drug use. He painted himself as a Southern gentleman who “would never strike a woman, under any circumstances, at any time”. He claimed Ms Heard “was abusive to me physically and verbally” and alleged she threw a vodka bottle at him which severed the tip of his finger.
However, News Group argued that Mr Depp was a “hopeless addict” who repeatedly lost control. Ms Heard testified that Mr Depp routinely used violence, including pulling out clumps of her hair when he was drunk. The trial was also shown texts sent by Mr Depp to a fellow actor which read: “Let’s burn Amber”.
In response to the ruling, the Sun said: “Domestic abuse victims must never be silenced and we thank the judge for his careful consideration.” Elaine Charlson Bredehoft, US counsel for Ms Heard, said the ruling was “not a surprise”.
Schillings, who represented Mr Depp, called 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,” it said.
Mr Depp is also bringing a $50m defamation lawsuit against Ms Heard in the US.