Court Dismisses Johnny Depp Libel Lawsuit Finding Statements to be Substantially True

Following a trial that spanned over 16 days, the UK’s High Court dismissed Johnny Depp’s libel claim against The Sun newspaper over an article that accused Depp of being a “wife beater.” The judge presiding over the trial, Justice Andrew Nichol, issued a 129-page, 585-paragraph opinion thoroughly detailing the allegedly defamatory statements and the trial. Justice Nicol ultimately held that Depp had proved the necessary elements for a libel action, but also found that The Sun had proven that the article in which the allegedly defamatory statements appeared was “substantially true.”

In April 2018, The Sun published an article originally titled “GONE POTTY: How can JK Rowling be ‘genuinely happy’ casting wife-beater Johnny Depp in the new Fantastic Beasts film?” The article’s title was later changed to “GONE POTTY How Can JK Rowling be ‘genuinely happy’ casting Johnny Depp in the new Fantastic Beasts film after assault claim?” The article asserted among other things that Depp was violent towards his ex-wife Amber Heard throughout the course of their relationship. In response to the story, Depp filed a defamation lawsuit against The Sun’s publisher, News Group Newspapers Ltd., and executive editor, Dan Wootton.

Depp’s complaint contended that the 14 alleged instances of abuse detailed in the article were false and defamatory. The complaint argued that the article omitted certain exculpatory facts, such as one instance where police visited Depp’s home for a domestic disturbance complaint but determined that no crime had been committed, and did not seek Depp’s side of the story before publishing the article or mention that Depp denied the claims. Depp alleged that he suffered serious harm to his personal and professional reputation as a result of the alleged defamation.

In opposition to the claims of libel, The Sun asserted a number of defenses including the defense of truth under Section 2(1) of the UK’s Defamation Act 2013. Section 2(1) of the 2013 Act provides that “It is a defense to an action for defamation for the defendant to show that the imputation conveyed by the statement complained of is substantially true.”

Under English law, there is a presumption that the statement is false. This is viewed by experts in international law as being a pro-claimant approach. In the United States, by contrast, statements that are defamatory per se are presumed to be harmful to one’s reputation but there is no presumption that the statements themselves are false.

By relying on the defense of truth, The Sun was required to establish that the story was substantially true. In other words, it did not have to prove that every single aspect of the allegedly defamatory statements was absolutely true. Instead, the paper only had to prove that the “sting” or gist of the article was true or, in other words, that the article when taken as a whole was accurate. Defamation law in the U.S. has a similar standard for the defense of truth. In the end, the Court found that the paper had proven “on the balance of probabilities” (similar to the preponderance of the evidence standard that applies to most civil cases in the U.S.) the substantial truth of its story.

The Court’s full opinion is available here.

Whether you are being accused of defaming someone or you believe that someone else has defamed you, it is important to consult an experienced defamation law and First Amendment law attorney. Our DuPage County defamation attorneys defend individuals’ First Amendment and free speech rights to address matters of public concern. Our results speak for themselves. Here is an arbitration decision where we successfully defended our client by presenting evidence that our client’s 20+ YouTube videos containing negative opinions about a used car dealer were substantially true and were protected opinion under the First Amendment. Here you can read a federal court decision where we successfully defended our client against a libel per se claim arguing that the statements were capable of an innocent construction and were nonactionable opinion.

Our Lisle and Westmont defamation attorneys also represent and prosecute claims on behalf of businesses throughout the Chicagoland area including in Wilmette and Evanston who have been unfairly and falsely criticized by consumers and competitors in defamatory publications in the online and offline media. We have successfully represented businesses that have been the victim of competitors setting up false rating websites in order to publish defamatory content about our business clients. Beyond slander and libel law, our Chicago business, commercial, class-action, and consumer litigation lawyers represent individuals, family businesses, and enterprises of all sizes in a variety of legal disputes, including disputes among partners and shareholders as well as lawsuits between businesses and consumer rights, auto fraud, and wage claim individual and class action cases. In every case, our goal is to resolve disputes as quickly and successfully as possible, helping business clients protect their investments and get back to business as usual. We serve clients throughout Illinois and the Chicagoland area. You can contact us online here or call us on our locally at 630-333-0333.

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