The aftermath of the Johnny Depp libel trial – what happens if he wins or loses?

Johnny Depp’s libel trial against The Sun’s publisher News Group Newspapers (NGN) ended on Tuesday after 16 days of shocking accusations against the actor and his ex-wife Amber Heard.

Yet it may be weeks, or even months, before it is decided whether Depp has won his case.

While it may have seemed like Depp, 57, or Heard, 34, were on trial, what with the serious abuse allegations levelled at both over the last three weeks, neither of the stars are the defendants in this case.

It is NGN and The Sun’s executive editor that are being sued for libel, and it will come down to what Mr Justice Nicol decides to be true. 

The ruling

Depp sued NGN and The Sun’s executive editor Dan Wootton over an article published on 27 April 2018, reading: ‘Gone Potty: How can JK Rowling be “genuinely happy” casting wife beater Johnny Depp in the new Fantastic Beasts film?’

The column referred to Rowling backing Depp to remain in the role of Gellert Grindelwald in the Fantastic Beasts sequel, following allegations that he physically abused his ex Heard.

Depp denies all allegations of abuse, and in his closing statement, Depp’s lawyer David Sherborne said the star was ’no wife beater’ and accused NGN and Wootton of ‘acting as both judge and jury’, said the article was ‘not researched at all’, and that it was presented in a ‘deliberately and wholly one-sided manner’.

In this trial, the burden is on the defendants (NGN and Wootton) to prove their story was accurate. 

Heard acted as NGN’s main witness, testifying that Depp was violent towards her on 14 occasions, which they claim proves their description of Depp has a ‘wife-beater’ was accurate. 

While the trial ended after 16 days of witnesses and cross-examinations, judge Mr Justice Nicol could take weeks or even months to hand down a ruling, with his judgement not expected before September as he must go through the large volume of evidence in painstaking detail.

This includes thousand of text messages, video footage, testimonies from Depp’s former employees and security team, Heard’s sister and friends, and written statements from Depp’s exes Winona Ryder and Vanessa Paradis. 

What will happen if Johnny Depp wins or loses? 

British libel law is widely considered to favour claimants, like Depp – but if he wins his case against NGN, he won’t actually be winning that much money.

Damages in libel cases brought in England and Wales usually have an upper limit of around £300,000, but damages for distress and vindication in the High Court rarely go above £100,000. 

If Depp wins, NGN will have to pay his legal costs, and damages could be higher if the actor convinces the court that his career has been harmed by the allegations.

If the actor loses, then he will have to pay both this and The Sun’s legal costs – which will likely be more than the damages he would receive if he won the case. 

Mr Sherborne, though, said in his closing statement that the case wasn’t about the potential damages, saying: ‘What is important to Mr Depp is clearing his name of these appalling allegations, expanded on as it has been over the last four years, as a result of which he has lost nothing less than everything, he would say.

‘When I say he has lost everything, to him obviously everything is his reputation. This is not about money, this is vindicating him.’

However, it has been suggested by many that even if Depp wins his claim, he’s lost in the grand scheme of things, with the ‘wife-beater’ claims disseminated on a global scale by the trial and the details of his private life and substance abuse splashed in the headlines. 

Mark Stephens, media lawyer at legal firm Howard Kennedy, told the Hollywood Reporter: ‘It almost beggars belief that anyone rational has taken this case to court. At some level, mud sticks.’

What happens next

Whatever the ruling, it could possibly be appealed all the way to the UK Supreme Court, so the trial may not end with a win or a loss for Depp, although an appeal seems an unlikely option in a case like this.

There is also the issue of Depp suing Heard for $50 million (£38m) in a defamation lawsuit in Virginia. 

Depp is suing his ex-wife over over an op-ed she wrote for the Washington Post in December 2018, in which she spoke about becoming a ‘public figure representing domestic violence abuse’.

Although she did not mention Depp by name, his lawyers claim the article led to speculation that he was the abuser and caused him to lose his role of Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates Of The Caribbean.

If he loses the NGN libel case, he is almost certain to lose that one too, with Stephens saying this trial ‘is in some ways a dress rehearsal for the second case’.

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