Hollywood Scandals: Deppgate–Johnny Depp Awarded $15M in Abuse Claims Defamation Trial

The verdict suggests that the jury believed arguments from Depp that Heard faked her injuries in the rare celebrity defamation case to go to trial.


A Virginia jury awarded Johnny Depp $15 million in his defamation suit against Amber Heard on Wednesday, ruling in his favor on all three claims that he was defamed when Heard wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post in which she called herself a domestic abuse survivor.
He was also mostly vindicated of allegations that he defamed Heard by calling her accusations a hoax.

Heard was handed near complete loss in a case revolving around dueling defamation claims from her and Depp, prevailing on only one of her claims in a widely broadcast trial that came to symbolize the shortcomings of the #MeToo movement. Heard, who divorced Depp in 2016 after obtaining a domestic violence restraining order, has been dragged through two trials across two continents to substantiate allegations that Depp abused her.


Johnny Depp
Johnny Depp sits in his vehicle as he departs the Fairfax County Courthouse on May 27, 2022 in Fairfax, Virginia. 

A jury of 6 men and 3 women took 13 hours over three days of deliberations to reach the verdict, absolving Depp of claims that he smeared Heard by claiming that she lied about being abused.

Jurors concluded that Heard acted with the level of malice or recklessness necessary to meet the high standard for public figures to allege defamation.

Depp was awarded $10 million in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages, which was cut by Judge Penney Azcarate to Virginia’s statutory cap of $350,000.

While Heard lost on two of her three claims, she won on one claim that a statement from Depp’s lawyer was defamatory. In the statement, he said that Heard set up an “ambush, a hoax,” referencing a visit from law enforcement to the couple’s house allegedly initiated by Heard. She was awarded $2 million in compensatory damages but none in punitive damages.

“The disappointment I feel today is beyond words,” Heard said. “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.”

Heard added, “I’m even more disappointed with what this verdict means for other women. It 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. It sets back the idea that violence against women is to be taken seriously.”

Depp, in a long statement celebrating the verdict, said the decision “gave me my life back.”

“From the very beginning, the goal of bringing this case was to reveal the truth, regardless of outcome,” Depp said. “Speaking the truth was something that I owed to my children and to all those who have remained steadfast in their support of me. I feel at peace knowing I have finally accomplished that.”

The trial centered on accusations that Heard defamed Depp in her op-ed because it corresponded with the time the pair were married. After Depp sued for $50 million, Heard shot back with a $100 million counterclaim arguing her ex-husband had coordinated a campaign aimed at smearing her.

The allegedly defamatory statements in Heard’s column were:

1. “I spoke up against sexual violence—and faced our culture’s wrath.”;

2. “Then two years ago, I became a public figure representing domestic abuse, and I felt the full force of our culture’s wrath for women who speak out.”;

3. “I had the rare vantage point of seeing, in real time, how institutions protect men accused of abuse.”

The allegedly defamatory statements that made up Heard’s counterclaims concerned accusations from Adam Waldman — one of Depp’s lawyers, who was thrown off the case after leaking information covered by protective order to the press.

In one statement to The Daily Mail cited in the suit, Waldman said that Heard “set Mr. Depp up by calling the cops,” referencing visit from law enforcement to the couple’s house, after which Heard refused to press charges against Depp for domestic abuse. He said in another, “We have reached the beginning of the end of Ms. Heard’s abuse hoax against Johnny Depp.”

Jurors were tasked with navigating complex principles of defamation law to reach the verdict. One of the legal issues they decided in favor of Depp was that Heard republished the op-ed by retweeting the piece. Under defamation law, she could only be found liable if the jury concluded that she sufficiently retransmitted or redistributed the content with the goal of reaching a new audience. Merely linking the hyperlink does not amount to republication.

For either to prevail, they had to prove that the other made the allegedly defamatory statements with actual malice, or the knowledge that they knew the claims were lies or acted with reckless disregard for the truth.

The verdict suggests that jurors did not completely believe evidence from Heard documenting her injuries.

They were not convinced by Heard’s central theory of the case that she was abused numerous times, either physically, psychologically or verbally. They were also not swayed by arguments from Heard’s lawyers if she was abused even once, then she wins the case.

Ben Rottenborn, Heard’s lawyers, had argued during closing statements that a loss for Heard would set back the central teaching of the #MeToo movement to believe survivors of abuse. He urged jurors to “think about the message the Mr. Depp and his attorneys are sending to Amber, and by extension to every victim of domestic abuse everywhere.”

Halim Dhanidina, a former California appellate judge, observed that the facts of the case favored Depp, while the standards of defamation law favored Heard. He pointed to Heard’s theory of the case that she should prevail if she suffered even one instance of abuse as compelling.

“There’s logic to that argument that as long as she suffered any abuse, then the title of that op-ed isn’t provably false,” Dhanidina said.

The problem with the theory, Dhanidina continued, is that Heard’s credibility might have been undercut to an extent that jurors were hard-pressed to believe her testimony and ultimately hesitant to deliver a verdict in her favor. He said, “While that [argument] may be legally true, it’s hard to convince jurors at a gut level that they should make their verdict on that analysis” if they were convinced that she lied on the stand.

Heard is expected to appeal the verdict.

Heard will likely appeal a ruling allowing the jury to decide whether the title of the op-ed, “I spoke up against sexual violence—and faced our culture’s wrath” was sufficiently specific such that it could be inferred to be about Depp. Heard’s lawyers questioned how the statement could be defamatory since there are no provably false statements concerning Depp.

“I think there’s a fairly compelling legal and policy argument to be made that in order to protect the 1st Amendment right to free speech, legal defamation should exist very narrowly in law,” Dhanidina said. “There comes a point at which a statement is so vague it can’t reasonable be determined to be a statement of fact. There’s a point at which the court has to draw a line.”

The court may also readdress certain legal questions if it grants a motion for a new trial or issues a judgment notwithstanding the verdict. The latter is reserved for rare situations in which the judge overseeing the case overrules the decision of the jury or amends its verdict because jurors reached an unreasonable decision.

The case drew massive attention from the public, which took to YouTube and Twitch to watch the trial as it unfolded in real time.

The proceedings may be remembered most for their impact on discouraging survivors of domestic abuse to come forward in court. Heard was relentlessly mocked on social media by influencers who claimed she faked her testimony recounting multiple instances of abuse at the hands of Depp. She was maligned for failing to follow through on her pledge to donate the entirety of her $7 million divorce settlement to the American Civil Liberties Union and Children’s Hospital Los Angeles despite explaining that she had to stop making the donations, which was to be paid over several years, to pay for litigation costs.

“I receive hundreds of death threats regularly if not daily – thousands since this trial has started,” Heard testified. “People mock my testimony about me being assaulted. It’s been agonizing, painful, and the most humiliating thing I’ve ever had to go through.”

The former couple met in 2011 while shooting The Rum Diary. Heard filed for divorce in 2016, just a year into their marriage. She made headlines when she obtained restraining order against Depp, accusing him of abuse.