The weeks-long civil trial between Hollywood actor Johnny Depp and actress Amber Heard recently concluded, resulting in an American jury reaching a verdict largely in Depp's favor.
The trial began in 2019 when Depp filed an action against his former wife, Amber Heard, claiming damages of 50 million dollars for defamation and damage to his reputation. The action was based on an article written by Heard and published by the Washington Post in 2018, in which Heard stated that she had been a victim of domestic abuse. Following the action filed by Depp, Heard filed a counterclaim for damages in the amount of 100 million dollars.
The trial attracted a great deal of public attention and was live-streamed and continuously discussed on social media where multiple video clips and memes of the trial circulated. Social media tended to support Depp as evidenced by, for example, the hashtag #JusticeforJohnnyDepp which has had over 15 billion views on TikTok.
DEPP’S US WIN PRECEEDED BY UK LOSS
It is interesting to note that Depp lost a rather similar case in 2020 against The Sun in the United Kingdom where neither streaming nor television coverage of the trial was allowed. In addition, in the UK trial Heard was neither a party to the case nor a witness. Depp had taken legal action after The Sun published an article in 2018 calling him a "wife beater". A UK judge found the article published in The Sun to be sufficiently truthful. Therefore, Depp's action was dismissed.
Is it possible that the different outcomes in Depp's similar cases may have been influenced by differences in law, evidence, and trial systems?
THE US JURY’S EFFECT ON THE OUTCOME
It seems apparent that the nature of the trial changes considerably when the case is decided by a jury. In both trials Depp’s lawyers attempted to prove that Heard had lied about domestic violence, questioned her character, and claimed that Heard herself had been abusive. However, compared to the trial in the US, the UK judge was critical of Depp´s evidence and the arguments presented in connection with such evidence.
THE US JURY HEARD EXTENSIVE EVIDENCE ON CHARACTER
In the United States extensive evidence was submitted relating to the character, personality and behavior of Depp and Heard, which, at least from a Nordic perspective, was not directly related to the actual claims. Such "character evidence" went into detail about Depp's childhood, family relationships, the nature of both parties' past relationships and suspected affairs.
WHAT ABOUT A SIMILAR TYPE OF CASE IN FINLAND?
The Finnish system is very different from the US jury trial. For example, the American jury system is not known in Finland. In district courts, layperson judges (“lautamiehet”) take part in, for example, criminal proceedings with a professional judge. In all trials in which a layperson judge is involved, he or she acts as a member of the court. Layperson judges, however, do not issue decisions independent of the professional judge.
Additionally, the extensive character evidence seen in the US would be unlikely in Finland. In Finland, trials are based on the principle of free presentation and consideration of evidence, according to which the court has the power to decide what is to be considered true. However, the court must exclude evidence that is unnecessary or irrelevant.
As a result, the attitude towards character evidence is usually dismissed since it is generally considered irrelevant. Character evidence can be seen as problematic because it overstates the credibility of the person. At least from a Nordic perspective, lawyers may have reservations about evidence that is not sufficiently related to the case. The scope of news and social media coverage in the American case also seems problematic from a Nordic point of view.
THE AMERICAN TORT SYSTEM
Another interesting aspect of the trial is the jury's decision finding Heard liable to Depp for 10 million dollars in damages and 5 million dollars in punitive damages. However, the judge had to intervene because Virginia state law limits punitive damages to a maximum of $350,000. In the verdict, Depp was also ordered to pay Heard two million dollars in damages, but no punitive damages.
In addition, in the United States the injured party can receive more compensation than they have actually lost because punitive damages are not based on the damage actually suffered. In contrast, under the Finnish tort system, only actual damages can be compensated.
THE LIKELIHOOD OF SUCCESS ON APPEAL IN THE US CASE
The US case may not be completely over, as Heard is appealing the court's decision. A successful appeal might be difficult since the threshold for changing a jury's verdict is high and the appellant would also have to show a fundamental error in the lower court's decision.