Depp v News Group Newspapers

Reference: [2020] EWHC 2911 (QB)

Court: High Court, Queen's Bench Divisions (Media & Communications)

Judge: Nicol J

Date of judgment: 2 Nov 2020

Summary: libel – Defence under s.2 of the Defamation Act 2013

Appearances: David Sherborne (Claimant)  Adam Wolanski QC - Leading Counsel (Defendant)  Clara Hamer (Defendant)  Kate Wilson (Claimant) 

Instructing Solicitors: Schillings (Claimant), Simons Muirhead & Burton LLP (Defendants)

Facts

Mr Depp, the well-known actor, sued the publisher of The Sun newspaper and its Executive Editor, Dan Wootton for libel over articles published on 27 and 28 April 2018 headlined “How can JK Rowling be ‘genuinely happy’ casting wife beater Johnny Depp in the new Fantastic Beasts film?” and other headlines.

 

The Defendants relied on the defence of Truth and sought to prove that Mr Depp beat his wife, actress Amber Heard, causing her to suffer significant injury and on occasion leading to her fearing for her life.

 

The Defendants’ case was that throughout their relationship Mr Depp was controlling and verbally and physically abusive towards Ms Heard, particularly when he was under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs. They relied on 14 alleged incidents of serious physical assault against Ms Heard, which were said to have taken place between 2013 and 2016 in place including Los Angeles, the Bahamas, Tokyo, Australia, south east Asia, and on a flight from Boston to Los Angeles.

 

Mr Depp’s case was that the article meant that he was guilty, on overwhelming evidence, of serious domestic violence against his then wife, causing significant injury and leading to her

fearing for her life, for which he was constrained to pay no less than £5 million to compensate her, and which resulted in him being subjected to a continuing restraining order; and for that reason is not fit to work in the film industry.

Mr Depp denied that he had ever hit or committed any acts of physical violence against Ms Heard but, instead, his case was that she had been violent towards him.

The trial was held before Mr Justice Nicol over 16 days in July 2020. Mr Depp and Ms Heard gave evidence, as did 18 additional witnesses called by Mr Depp and 6 additional witness called by the Defendants.

Issue

  1. The meaning of the articles complained of.
  2. Whether the imputation conveyed by the articles was substantially true.

Held

  1. The meaning of the articles was as contended for by the Defendants, namely that Mr Depp beat Ms Heard causing her to suffer significant injury and on occasion leading to her fearing for her life.
  2. That imputation was substantially true. Mr Justice Nicol found 12 of the 14 alleged incidents of serious violent physical assault against Ms Heard to be proved true, and found that on three such occasions Ms Heard feared for her life. Accordingly, the defence of truth was established and Mr Depp’s claim was dismissed.

Mr Justice Nicol’s findings included that:

    1. Mr Depp first hit Ms Heard in early 2013 in Los Angeles, slapping her and knocking her to the floor after AH made a comment about his tattoo.
    2. In March 2013 at their home in Los Angeles Mr Depp was drunk and taking cocaine. He flew into a jealous rage over a painting made by Ms Heard’s former girlfriend and tried to set fire to it. He then hit Ms Heard so hard he made her lip bleed, grabbed her, shook her, and shoved her into a wall.
    3. In 2013 Mr Depp attacked Ms Heard in a holiday trailer in Hicksville, California. He was in a jealous rage. He smashed up the trailer, threw drinking glasses at her and ripped her dress.
    4. While on a private plane in May 2014 Mr Depp was high on drugs and drink. He screamed obscenities at Ms Heard and physically abused her in the presence of others (whose evidence to the contrary the Judge rejected). Mr Depp kicked Ms Heard in the back or bottom and passed out in the plane toilet.
    5. During a detox trip to the Bahamas in 2014 Mr Depp kicked Ms Heard and pushed her to the ground, slapped her and grabbed her by the hair.
    6. In a Tokyo hotel room in January 2015, having taken drugs, Mr Depp shoved Ms Heard, slapped her and grabbed her by the hair. He then muscled her to the floor, stood over her and yelled at her, making her cry.
    7. In Australia in March 2015, Mr Depp felt jealous of Ms Heard’s co-star and angry at her for what he believed to be her resistance to signing a post-nuptial agreement and for criticising his use of drugs. He also felt disappointed by his artistic legacy. Over a period of 3 days he got high on drugs and alcohol. He went on a violent rampage, causing extensive damage to the house they were staying in. He repeatedly physically assaulted Ms Heard. She suffered cuts all over her body. The assaults included hitting her in the face, pushing her to the ground, choking her, spitting in her face and throwing glass bottles at her. He made her fear for her life. The judge rejected Mr Depp’s case that Ms Heard was responsible for cutting off the tip of his finger, but considered the cause of the injury to be uncertain.
    8. In Los Angeles in March 2015, during an incident on a staircase of the couple’s home at which Ms Heard’s sister Whitney was also present, Mr Depp grabbed Ms Heard’s hair and hit her repeatedly in the head. Ms Heard punched Mr Depp in defence of her sister.
    9. On a train in South East Asia in August 2015 Mr Depp hit Ms Heard, pushed her against a wall by grasping her throat and held her there, causing her to fear for her life.
    10. In December 2015 at their home in Los Angeles Mr Depp was probably under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs. He threw a decanter at Ms Heard, slapped her, grabbed her by the hair and dragged her through the apartment, pulling large chunks of hair and scalp out of her head. He then followed her upstairs, hit her again in the back of the head and dragged her upstairs by her hair. He shoved her twice at the top of the stairs, making her fear she would fall. He hit her repeatedly, and deliberately head butted her in the face, causing her nose to bleed, and then dragged her by the hair from one room to the next. He grabbed her by the throat, pushed her to the ground and punched her in the back of her head. He screamed “I will fucking kill you” at her as he slapped her in the face. He then got on top of her on a bed, placed his knee on her back and repeatedly punched her in the head and pushed her face into the mattress. He caused Ms Heard to fear for her life. Her makeup artist covered up her injuries with makeup for her appearance on the James Corden Show the following evening.
    11. During a birthday party for Ms Heard at their home in Los Angeles in April 2016 Mr Depp arrived having consumed alcohol and having taken marijuana and cocaine, having received very grim news about his financial situation. He assaulted Ms Heard that evening. The Judge rejected Mr Depp’s case that Ms Heard had left faeces on the couple’s bed after this incident. It was more likely that the faeces had been left by one of the couple’s dogs.
    12. On 21 May 2016 at their home in Los Angeles Mr Depp flew into a rage and threw a phone at Ms Heard, striking her and causing an injury to her face.
    13. The Judge rejected evidence that Ms Heard had been violent or decided that the evidence was not relevant to the task he had to carry out.

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