Jenner & Block

Firm Wins $13+ Million Jury Verdict in Dispute Over John Steinbeck Copyrights

Jenner & Block won a federal jury verdict of $13.15 million in damages in a week-long trial over the rights to writer John Steinbeck’s works.

The win in the US District Court for the Central District of California was a complete victory for the firm’s client, Waverly Scott Kaffaga, who is Steinbeck’s stepdaughter and executor to the Estate of Elaine Steinbeck, the author’s late third wife.

The estate has been embroiled in a series of bitter legal battles with other Steinbeck heirs over control of the rights to the author’s works dating back to a 1983 settlement agreement in which the heirs agreed to grant Elaine Steinbeck control over the works in exchange for increased royalties.  In 2008 and 2009, Jenner & Block successfully represented the Estate in a landmark case involving Thom’s attempt to exercise termination rights under the Copyright Act.

In 2014, Ms. Kaffaga sued Thom and Gail Steinbeck, John’s son and daughter-in-law, as well as their company Palladin, for wrongly claiming control over the copyrights harming the catalogue as a whole,  and, in particular, interfering with movie deals for East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath.  By claiming to control the rights, defendants caused Universal and Imagine Entertainment to walk away from a movie deal for East of Eden involving Gary Ross and Jennifer Lawrence and interfered with negotiations with DreamWorks for a movie deal involving The Grapes of Wrath, depriving the estate of millions of dollars in potential revenue.

In November 2016, US District Court Judge Terry Hatter granted Ms. Kaffaga’s motion for summary judgment on claims for breach of contract and slander of title, leaving the jury to decide potential damages for those claims and whether Thom (now deceased), Gail and their company actually wrongfully interfered with the East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath projects.(Jenner & Block argued that motion.)

Following the trial, the seven-member jury took about two hours to reach its decision in siding with Ms. Kaffaga on all claims.  The verdict, which includes $7.9 million in punitive damages and $5.25 million in compensatory, clears up much of the confusion about who actually owns the rights to the author’s works and allows long-stalled film and television projects to potentially move forward. Several media outlets covered the verdict, including The Hollywood Reporter, Variety and Law360 (subscription required).

Partner Susan J. Kohlmann led the team representing Ms. Kaffaga, along with Partners Andrew J. Thomas and Alison I. Stein.  The team also included Associates Stephanie Krent, Brittany R. Lamb, Gretchen O. Stertz and Andrew G. Sullivan.  Law clerk Jonathan Diaz, paralegals Jeffrey Phillips and Alonso Ponce, legal secretary Laura Saltzman and legal assistant Kathryn Schaub also contributed to the matter.

This win is the latest chapter in the long-running legal saga between the estate and others of the author’s descendants, and is one of several victories that the firm has won for the estate during that time.  The firm won  Second Circuit victories for the estate in 2008 and 2009.  In 2015, the team obtained another significant victory when Judge Hatter, on a motion to dismiss, dismissed in its entirety a copyright lawsuit filed by Thomas Steinbeck and the author’s granddaughter.