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Johnny Depp v Amber Heard: Hollywood’s latest drama

Johnny Depp v Amber Heard: Hollywood’s latest drama

Neide Lemos


Reading time: three minutes

The defamation lawsuit between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard provided a much-needed insight into the US courtroom.

For those who haven't kept up with this story, Depp and Heard filed for divorce in 2016, just 15 months after they married. Having lost the UK case (Depp II v News Group Newspaper Ltd [2020] EWHC 2911 (QB)), Depp filed a claim for $50million in damages against Heard for an op-ed that Heard wrote for The Washington Post in 2018 titled “I spoke up against sexual violence - and faced our culture’s wrath. That has to change”, representing herself as a victim of domestic abuse during the height of the #MeToo movement.

Heard filed a $100million counterclaim against Depp, saying that Depp defamed her and damaged her reputation when he claimed her allegations of domestic abuse in the op-ed for the Washington Post were false.

So, what is defamation?

Defamation is a tortious act in which a third party communicates false statements about a person that can lead to reputational damage. Defamation consists of two types of false statements – libel (written) and slander (oral). The Defamation Act 2013 has presented itself at the centre of the topic of discussions this year – think Arron Banks’ recent libel loss against Carole Cadwalladr and the long-awaited judgement involving Rebekah Vardy and Coleen Rooney.

The Defamation Act 2013 removed the presumption by virtue of Section 11 of the Act that there would be a Jury trial. Section 2(1) of the Act provides that defence will be upheld if it can be proven that the statement is “substantially true” along with Section 1(1) of the Act that requires a claimant to show that the defamatory statement did cause or was likely to lead to serious reputational harm.

Different jurisdictions, different results

The outcome in the UK court versus the US is a clear account of the different approaches used in different jurisdictions. In fact, in the UK trial, the judge found that 12 of 14 allegations of domestic violence against Depp were proven to be “substantially true” – a completely different outcome to the judgement in the US trial. A key difference in the two trials is that the US trial was before a jury whereas the UK trial was heard before a judge, and cases heard in England are not usually televised. In the US, the burden of proof was on Depp to prove that “clear and convincing evidence” of actual malice of Heard’s statement in her The Washington Post op-ed.

Read more about the Depp v Heard case and the future of televised trials in the UK in this Blog post from Marie Ade.

What next?

Following the verdict, Heard has appealed the judgment. What we have witnessed is a social media campaign demanding justice for Depp which, given his popularity in Hollywood, may have prejudiced the case entirely. What this will mean for the two Hollywood stars is unknown, but critics speculate about their future in big Hollywood roles now that the industry owes a greater duty to protect both its stars and reputation. What can be said is that neither party is a real winner in this case.

There's more information about defamation and reputation management in our practice area profile.