- Legal experts said high-profile defamation cases like Depp v. Heard are bad for everyone involved.
- One expert told Insider that he managed to stop 99% of celebrities from filing defamation lawsuits.
- The experts said the attention celebrities receive raises the profile of the defamatory claims.
Defamation lawsuits by celebrities like Blac Chyna against members of the Kardashian-Jenner family and by Johnny Depp against his ex-wife Amber Heard could do lasting reputational damage to all parties, according to legal experts who spoke to Insider.
Defamation lawsuits have traditionally been a mechanism for people to restore their reputations, John Culhane, a law professor at Widener University Delaware Law School, told Insider. If someone makes false and degrading statements about a person, a defamation lawsuit enables the injured party to defend themselves by theoretically clarifying lies about their personality and, in doing so, often collecting monetary damages.
But the recent spate of high-profile defamation lawsuits, with prominent witnesses and sordid details, could do the exact opposite for those involved.
“They want people to be able to use defamation lawsuits to do what defamation is supposed to do,” Culhane said. “These kinds of lawsuits can be a deterrent.”
Jeff McFarland, a veteran entertainment litigator at McKool Smith who has represented clients on both sides of a libel lawsuit, said that “99% of the time, it succeeds in stopping them” from filing a libel lawsuit because of the potential reputational risks all around Line.
“The problem with filing a defamation case is that if a libelous comment was included in an online publication or repeated once on a broadcast, then it will be repeated tens of thousands of times as so and so is sued for defamation,” McFarland said . “People hear it often enough to associate it with the truth.”
The risk of bad facts coming to light during cross-examination
Blac Chyna, real name Angela White, is suing Kris Jenner, Kim Kardashian, Khloé Kardashian, and Kylie Jenner for $100 million in damages for unfairly abusing them with E! executives five years ago following their split from Rob Kardashian, which led to the cancellation of their Keeping Up With The Kardashians spin-off series Rob & Chyna.
In early May, a Los Angeles jury dismissed all of Blac Chyna’s claims of defamation and breach of contract after much of the trial focused on domestic disputes between Chyna and Rob Kardashian. An incident in which Chyna pointed a gun at Rob’s head took center stage, and McFarland said Chyna’s statement that she was “just being silly” hurt her libel lawsuit — and potentially her long-term reputation.
“There’s no joke when it comes to a gun,” McFarland said. “I think that was the fulcrum where the libel page broke apart because the allegation was that she was falsely accused of being dangerous.”
McFarland said that the public’s positive opinion of the Kardashians helped influence the case. He added that for Chyna, “bad facts that come to light on cross-examination make you look like a liar.”
“I think the Kardashian attorneys did a very good job preparing their clients to be honest, truthful, credible, compassionate but straightforward, all of the things that you want in a witness and that the Kardashians are brilliant performed,” said McFarland.
The Kardashian-Jenner women escaped the trial relatively unscathed, Culhane told Insider. Despite some insider squabbles about the making of their reality TV series and some minor revelations about the women’s relationships, the Kardashian-Jenners have managed to avoid delving too deeply into their personal lives.
Fanbase and acting can’t win a case
The same was in Depp v. Heard didn’t — an ongoing, week-long case that has drawn the internet’s attention in violent, often unseemly ways.
“Whatever the case is, I feel like their reputations have really taken a hit,” Culhane said.
At the center of the case is Heard’s 2018 Washington Post op-ed article, in which she said she was a survivor of domestic and sexual violence. Depp did not name the piece.
Depp has accused Heard of ruining his reputation and career by alleging he abused her. An attorney for Depp said in opening statements that the publication “Mr. falsely and unfairly characterized Depp as a villain”. Heard has denied Depp’s defamation allegations and says in a $100 million countersuit that he assaulted her before and during their marriage, which ended in divorce in 2016. Depp has denied the claims.
From a legal standpoint, Culhane told Insider he would have advised Depp against bringing the case. From being obliged to admit long-standing substance abuse problems to having his violent lyrics read about Heard in open court, the trial is likely to do little to restore his reputation, Culhane said.
“I see no chance that Johnny Depp’s reputation will be improved by this lawsuit, even if the jury ultimately finds in his favour,” Culhane told Insider.
While Depp’s fanbase — an intense group of vocal and passionate supporters — might feel vindicated should Depp win, the actor’s career is unlikely to benefit, Culhane said.
“Will that bring renewed attention to his not-so-successful career these days?” said Culhane. “I can’t imagine it being enough to really give him his next feature attraction.”
Even as a defendant in the case, Heard’s reputation has suffered significantly. Earlier this month, a trial counsel told Insider’s Jacob Shamsian and Ashley Collman that Heard exaggerated during her testimony on the witness stand — a possible pitfall that juries are quick to assess.
“Juries are smart, they smell BS faintly and will punish you harshly,” McFarland said.
“This is the one time [performers] can’t act,” McFarland told Insider. “I don’t think either of them manages to come across as likeable and honest and it seems everyone is losing out on that.”
“I could see the judges sending out a note that said, ‘Do we have to pick a winner?'” McFarland said.