A federal jury awarded John Steinbeck’s stepdaughter more than $13 million in a lawsuit claiming the author’s son and daughter-in-law impeded film adaptations of his classic works.
Jurors in Los Angeles found Tuesday in favor of Waverly Scott Kaffaga, who alleged that long-running litigation over Steinbeck’s estate prevented her from making the most of his copyrights at a time when marquee names such as Steven Spielberg and Jennifer Lawrence were interested in bringing the novelist’s masterpieces back to the screen.
She claimed remakes of “The Grapes of Wrath” and “East of Eden” fell apart over the years.
Kaffaga, daughter of the late author’s third wife, Elaine, sued the estate of stepbrother Thomas Steinbeck, who died last year, his widow, Gail, and their company.
After the verdict, Kaffaga issued a statement in her capacity as executor for the estate of Elaine Steinbeck.
“We are pleased with the jury’s verdict that recognizes the estate’s full control of the rights to John Steinbeck’s works,” she said. “The outcome upholds the estate’s mission of sharing his legacy with the world.”
Gail Steinbeck said in a statement that she was disappointed in the outcome but confident her side would prevail on appeal.
Her attorney Matthew Berger said they were at a disadvantage from the start, given the evidence they were allowed to present.
“We did what we could to defend these outrageous claims,” Berger said in a statement.
The lawsuit followed a decades-long dispute between Thomas Steinbeck and Kaffaga’s mother over control of the author’s works.
Thomas Steinbeck has lost most rounds in court, including a lawsuit he and the daughter of his late brother, John Steinbeck IV, brought that spurred Kaffaga to countersue in the current case.
A judge had already ruled the couple breached a contract with Kaffaga. It was up to the Los Angeles jury to decide if Thomas and Gail Steinbeck interfered with deals and should pay up.
The jury decided in favor of Kaffaga and awarded her $5.25 million in compensatory damages and $7.9 million in punitive damages.
Gail Steinbeck’s lawyer said she never intentionally interfered in deals that would have benefited her and her husband and that would have served their interest promoting the legacy of the Nobel Prize winner.
An attorney for Kaffaga said Gail Steinbeck caught wind of projects and then threatened movie makers, saying she and her husband had legal rights to the work and also cut secret side deals without notifying Kaffaga.
In one instance, Thomas Steinbeck secretly signed a $650,000 deal with DreamWorks to be an executive producer on a film remake of “The Grapes of Wrath,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that starred Henry Fonda on the silver screen and won two Oscars.
Producers and directors later dropped the remakes because they feared litigation by the Steinbecks, Kaffaga’s attorney Susan Kohlmann said in her opening statement.
Kohlmann put Gail Steinbeck on the witness stand early in the case and displayed emails that she wrote suggesting that a reported remake of “East of Eden” starring Lawrence would be “litigation city.”
Another email Gail Steinbeck wrote after her husband lost a related court case in New York suggested litigation wouldn’t end until “I draw my last breath.”
Steinbeck laughed off that comment in testimony, saying, “Oh, that was silly.”
Berger, the lead defense attorney, noted that Kaffaga was never adopted by John Steinbeck and was not one of his heirs. He said Thomas Steinbeck was a co-owner of his father’s copyright and received royalties.
Gail Steinbeck estimated conservatively that her husband received $120,000 a year in publishing royalties from the author’s work — and as much as $200,000 in some years.
Berger said Kaffaga’s claim had no merit and she wasn’t entitled to any damages because most movies optioned are never made and that estimated revenue from unproduced projects was speculation.
Berger suggested Kaffaga was using Thomas’ inheritance to sue his widow.