Reputation Update: Johnny Depp loses libel claim against The Sun

Posted: November 2, 2020

Depp v News Group Newspapers Ltd & Anor [2020] EWHC 2911 (QB)

The hotly anticipated Judgment in the case between Johnny Depp and The Sun was handed down in the High Court today.  Amber Heard, Mr Depp’s ex-wife, was The Sun’s key witness. The main article which was the subject of the complaint referred to Mr Depp in its headline as a ‘wife beater’. Evidence given by both sides involved graphic and detailed accounts of the couple’s personal and marital lives. 

It was common ground between the parties that the words had the following Chase level 1 meanings:

i)   The Claimant had committed physical violence against Ms Heard;
ii)  This had caused her to suffer significant injury; and
iii) On occasion it caused Ms Heard to fear for her life.

However, the Claimant contended that the articles bore the following additional meanings, which the Defendants denied:

a)   there was “overwhelming evidence” of the Claimant’s domestic abuse;
b)   the Claimant was constrained to pay no less than £5m to compensate Ms Heard for the physical violence he had inflicted;
c)   which resulted in the Claimant being subjected to a continuing restraining order; and
d)   due to the Claimant’s physical violence against Ms Heard he was not fit to work in the film industry.

The Judge accepted the Defendants’ submissions and he found that the words complained of in the articles had the meanings for which the Defendants contended.

In their defence, the Defendants sought to rely on proving that the allegations were true by reference to 14 alleged incidents of physical assault, many of which allegedly took place whilst Mr Depp was under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs.  Mr Depp denied the allegations and stated that he had never hit or committed acts of physical violence against Ms Heard.

In his lengthy judgment, Mr Justice Nicol found that the “great majority of alleged assaults of Ms Heard by Mr Depp have been proved to the civil standard”, finding that 12 of the 14 incidents of physical assault were “substantially true”.  The Judge stated that he based his findings on Ms Heard’s evidence, on statements from third parties which corroborated her, and on evidence as to what Ms Heard received as a result of the divorce.  The Judge therefore accepted that the Defendants had shown that the words they published were substantially true in the meanings he held them to bear.  In light of those findings, and despite the fact that “the Claimant had proved the necessary elements of libel”, he found that the Defendants had a complete defence.

The full judgment is available here.

Mr Depp’s lawyers released a statement calling the Judgment “perverse” based on what they describe as a “disregard of the mountain of counterevidence […] which completely undermined the allegations, point by point”.  They have confirmed that Mr Depp intends to appeal.

Jessica Welch, Associate, Simkins LLP