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Jury Orders John Steinbeck’s Daughter-in-Law to Pay $13 Million in Rights Dispute

John Steinbeck
Anthony Camerano/AP/REX/Shutterstock

A federal jury on Tuesday ordered John Steinbeck’s daughter-in-law to pay $13 million for interfering in efforts to produce film versions of “The Grapes of Wrath” and “East of Eden.”

The verdict is a huge victory for Waverly Scott Kaffaga, the daughter of Steinbeck’s third wife, who controls the rights to Steinbeck’s works under a 1983 agreement. Kaffaga sued Thom and Gail Steinbeck, the author’s son and daughter-in-law, in 2014, accusing them of scuttling the two film projects by falsely claiming control of the copyrights.

The $13.15 million award is $1.3 million more than Kaffaga’s attorneys had asked for. Kaffaga sought $3.95 million to compensate for lost income from the film projects, along with $7.9 million in punitive damages. Attorney Susan Kohlmann argued that Gail Steinbeck had repeatedly flouted court rulings and asserted her right to control the copyrights, and argued that a steep judgment would send a strong message.

“We ask you to stop Gail… from interfering once and for all, so that the public will see John Steinbeck’s works come to life,” Kohlmann said in closing arguments.

In a statement, Kaffaga said she was pleased that the verdict “recognizes the Estate’s full control of the rights to John Steinbeck’s works.”

“The outcome upholds the Estate’s mission of sharing his legacy with the world,” she said. “We are thankful to the members of the jury for their time and service.”

But Gail Steinbeck shows no signs of giving up. Outside court, she said she would seek a stay of the judgment and pursue the case at the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, indicating that any film adaptations may yet be some time off.

“They’re trying to bankrupt me,” she said.

At trial, Kaffaga’s attorneys presented evidence that Gail Steinbeck had scuttled a proposed Universal adaptation of “East of Eden,” which was to star Jennifer Lawrence. They also put on evidence that she and her husband, who died last year, negotiated a secret “side deal” with DreamWorks over the rights to “The Grapes of Wrath,” which was at one point to be directed by Steven Spielberg. Kaffaga’s attorneys argued that the $650,000 payment “went to the wrong person.”

The Steinbeck rights have been subject to decades of dispute and litigation. The 1983 agreement gave Elaine Steinbeck control of her late husband’s works as well as a third of the proceeds. The remaining two-thirds went to Steinbeck’s two sons, both of whom are now dead. Elaine Steinbeck’s rights passed to Kaffaga, her daughter, upon her death.

Gail Steinbeck has rejected the 1983 agreement and disputes court rulings that have found it to be valid. She contends that her husband and niece rescinded the copyrights in 1998.

The plaintiffs presented emails in which Gail Steinbeck said the dispute “isn’t going to be over until I draw my last breath.”

In a deposition, she said, “It’s always going to be nebulous. It’s always going to be at risk.”

Kohlmann argued to the jury that the confusion around the Steinbeck rights had “pretty much eviscerated” the market for adapting his works.

Judge Terry Hatter already ruled last fall that Gail Steinbeck had breached the 1983 agreement. The jury was asked to assess damages for the breach, and to determine whether she had also interfered with Kaffaga’s economic advantage.

Gail Steinbeck’s attorney, Matthew Berger, disputed expert testimony on the potential value of the proposed adaptations, and urged the jury to award zero damages.

Outside court, Gail Steinbeck said she spent $3 million on one round of litigation, and another $500,000 on the latest suit.

“I don’t care about the money,” she said. “It would have been nice if John Steinbeck’s son hadn’t died in a rented studio apartment. This litigation has wiped us out.”

The jury deliberated for less than two hours before reaching its verdict. At one point, the jurors asked if Kaffaga would have to refund any portion of the judgment back to Gail Steinbeck as a rights fee under the terms of the 1983 agreement. Kohlmann argued that she would not, while Berger claimed that she would.

“I would have hoped this trial would have ended all this,” Judge Hatter said, dispiritedly. “But it looks as though that’s the next chapter.”