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Compensatory vs punitive damages: Legal experts weigh in on Depp, Heard verdict

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Johnny Depp won the defamation case against ex-wife Amber Heard on Wednesday following a nearly seven-week trial in Virginia amid allegations of domestic violence and sexual assault.

A seven-member jury declared Heard defamed Depp on all counts, and awarded the “Pirates of the Caribbean” star $5 million in punitive damages, in addition to $10 million in compensatory damages.

Punitive damages, though, were immediately reduced to the maximum amount allowed in the state, $350,000.

Depp initially sought a $50 million payout, and Heard counter sued for $100 million in damages. 

Compensatory vs punitive damages: Legal experts weigh in on Depp, Heard verdict

Compensatory vs punitive damages: Legal experts weigh in on Depp, Heard verdict
(Evelyn Hockstein/Pool via AP)

JOHNNY DEPP VERDICT: ACTOR WINS DEFAMATION SUIT AGAINST EX-WIFE AMBER HEARD

Neama Rahmani, president of West Coast Trial Lawyers, described compensatory damages to Fox News Digital as “past and future economic losses.”

“Johnny Depp being canceled and not being cast by Hollywood studios, his pain and suffering, his emotional distress — those are all different types of compensatory damages,” Rahmani said.

Compensatory damages can be described as both tangible “past and future economic losses” in addition to intangible expressions. 

“Punitive damages, on the other hand, are to punish someone for their wrongful conduct,” Rahmani said.

He added: “So, the $10 million the jurors thought were sufficient damages to make Johnny Depp whole for these defamatory statements, and the additional $5 million was to punish Heard for acting with malice because she actually knew the statements were false.

“She acted intentionally or recklessly, not just negligently, and generally you can’t get punitive damages for negligent conduct. You can only get them for reckless, malicious or intentional conduct.”

While Depp was awarded $5 million in punitive damages, due to Virginia state law as established in July 1988, the amount will be reduced to the legal capped sum of $350,000.

Amber Heard listening to the jury announce the verdict in her ex-husband's defamation trial.

Amber Heard listening to the jury announce the verdict in her ex-husband’s defamation trial.
(Screenshot)

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Had the suit been filed in California where she lived with Depp, or in New York where the American Civil Liberties Union is headquartered (and where Heard pledged to donate a portion of her $7 million divorce settlement from Depp), Heard would have been responsible for the full $5 million in punitive damages.  

During the court proceedings, it was revealed that the “Aquaman” star has since only fulfilled contributing $1.3 million of the $3.5 million pledged to the nonprofit organization.

Depp, 58, who is on tour with guitarist Jeff Beck in England, did not show up for the verdict, while Heard, 36, sat at the defense table wearing a somber expression as she listened to the decision in the Fairfax County Circuit Court.

In a small win for Heard, the jury – composed of five men and two women – found that Depp had defamed her through his attorney, Adam Waldman, as to a single statement, accusing her of staging an alleged assault, and awarded her $2 million in compensatory damages.

When the jury concluded Heard acted with malice and made false statements against the actor in the Washington Post article she wrote in 2018 about surviving domestic abuse without naming Depp, defamation lawyer Jeff Lewis detailed how a jury could have made its decision.

“You prove malice through circumstantial evidence, indirect evidence like one of the facts surrounding Amber’s situation, such that no person would have made these statements,” he said. 

Depp was not present in the Virginia courtroom to hear the verdict on Wednesday, but had testified in the defamation case.

Depp was not present in the Virginia courtroom to hear the verdict on Wednesday, but had testified in the defamation case.
(STEVE HELBER/POOL/AFP)

“No one could have believed they were true or as reckless indifference to the truth.”

Lewis added: “For malice, you’re supposed to prove it by a clear, convincing evidence standard, which is much higher for evidence, most likely 10% in terms of how the jury feels the evidence was presented. And juries typically look for circumstantial evidence of somebody. There’s no way somebody could actually believe that they were telling the truth.”

In addition, Lewis noted the punitive and compensatory damages are “non-dischargeable in bankruptcy” courts.

“If Johnny or Amber wanted to file for bankruptcy to avoid paying the bankruptcy court to protect or discharge intentional tortes like this. So, absent of an appeal, they have to write a check.”

It took the jury about 12 hours and three days to reach their verdict during a trial that Lewis noted was riddled with “inconsistencies.”

“People tend to be all for Amber or all for Johnny,” Lewis said. “How do you reconcile the ones who think that Amber was telling the truth or Johnny Depp was lying?”

Minutes after the verdict was read, Heard issued a statement saying she was devastated by what she believed this verdict means for other women. 

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Heard and Depp were married in February 2015 before she filed for divorce one year later in May 2016, which was finalized in January 2017; seen together at premiere of "Black Mass" in 2015.

Heard and Depp were married in February 2015 before she filed for divorce one year later in May 2016, which was finalized in January 2017; seen together at premiere of “Black Mass” in 2015.
(Fred Thornhill TPX)

“I’m heartbroken that the mountain of evidence still was not enough to stand up to the disproportionate power, influence, and sway of my ex-husband,” the statement read. “[he verdict] is a setback. It sets back the clock to a time when a woman who spoke up and spoke out could be publicly shamed and humiliated.”

In contrast, Johnny wrote: “The jury gave me my life back. I am truly humbled. From the very beginning, the goal of bringing this case was to reveal the truth, regardless of the outcome. Speaking the truth was something that I owed to my children and to all those who have remained steadfast in their support of me.”

Throughout the trial, jurors heard shocking testimony, including an infamous defecation incident in the couple’s marital bed to allegations Heard severed Depp’s fingertip during a vicious brawl.

Depp previously lost a libel suit in 2020 after he took a U.K. publication to court for calling him a “wife beater” in a piece related to Heard’s allegations. Heard and Depp were married in February 2015 before she filed for divorce one year later in May 2016, which was finalized in January 2017.

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