Johnny Depp v Amber Heard: a legal commentary

May 06, 2022

How did we get here?

This is a very significant piece of litigation for Johnny Depp in which he is effectively staking his career.

Johnny Depp sued the publisher of The Sun newspaper and journalist Dan Wootton in England in 2020 about an article concerning allegations that he was guilty of domestic violence against his then wife Amber Heard. He lost that case on the basis that the Judge (not jury) found, on the balance of probability, that the words complained of were substantially true.

He now brings a very similar case against Amber Heard for $50m in respect of a comment piece she wrote in the Washington Post claiming to be a victim of domestic abuse, albeit she did not name Johnny Depp personally.

What is happening in the US court?

The jury in the US case will need to look at a lot of the same evidence as heard in the claim in England. Amber Heard has also brought a counterclaim for $100m in respect of allegations that Johnny Depp has made that Amber Heard has sought to destroy his career.

The test for libel in the US is much higher than in England & Wales, as one would expect for a country steeped in the First Amendment right to free speech. Not only must Johnny Depp prove the allegations to be false and libellous, he must also show that Amber Heard published them with malice - i.e. she lied, and knew she was lying, with the intention to cause harm to him.

Why is this happening now?

Johnny Depp obviously felt compelled to bring the case to try and restore his reputation given various studios have distanced themselves from him as evidenced by the fact he has been dropped from the hugely successful ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ and ‘Fantastic Beasts’ franchises. However, were the jury to side with Amber Heard again, effectively agreeing with her that she was the victim of domestic violence, it is likely to signal the end of the career of one of Hollywood’s highest grossing actors of all time.