Strong Thesis Leads to Clear-Cut Opinion in John Steinbeck Estate Trial
Serving as an expert on the John Steinbeck Estate trial (Waverly Scott Kaffaga, as Executor of the Estate of Elaine Anderson Steinbeck, Plaintiff, vs. Thomas Steinbeck, Gail Knight Steinbeck and The Palladin Group, Inc. Case No. 14-CV-08699 TJH FFMx) this past year was both complicated and clear-cut.
Complicated due to the parties involved, the value of the catalogue as a whole and the complexities of copyright termination issues both before and after Steinbeck’s death, and clear-cut due to an agreement that was made in 1983 that still holds up today.
The merits of the Plaintiff’s (The Estate) case, which revolved around the control and authorization of those rights, were based on a 1983 Settlement Agreement between Elaine Steinbeck on behalf of the Estate on the one hand, and the blood heirs - Thomas and John Steinbeck the IV - on the other. The Agreement defined that the Estate was to have 100% control over the exploitation of the entire Steinbeck catalogue, and all 3 parties would split fees, revenue and royalties derived from the exploitation of those rights. In simple terms, the Estate made decisions on how the books were to be adapted into movies, plays, and other media, and all parties would benefit.
That Settlement has been upheld throughout numerous appeals battles, and to this day, Judge Hatter in the Central District of California upheld that the Settlement agreement was in fact valid. Hatter determined that attempts over the past 20 years by Thomas and his wife Gail to interfere in deal negotiations were a breach of contract and slander of title. These actions caused several deals to fall through entirely, other deals to become more expensive for the production companies, and many agents, studios and production companies have steered clear of developing content based on the catalogue for fear of ensuing litigation.
Ironically, the activities of Thomas (now deceased) and his wife Gail Steinbeck actually caused financial harm to themselves, as they did not receive their share of movie deals which fell through due to their own interference.
As an expert, I maintained an unbiased approach to the battles between these parties and looked at the clear cut definition of the Settlement Agreement and how that applied to the chain of title of the properties. The Courts’ decree that the Estate had control over the licensing of Steinbeck works, directed that any company or studio looking to obtain the underlying rights to the properties, need only deal with the Estate. Additionally, I took a conservative approach to the damage estimate, and only put forth numbers that the Estate lost due to the Defendants’ actions with respect to option and purchase price amounts. I intentionally did not include profit participation, merchandising royalties or additional book sales that the Estate would have profited from. This allowed my testimony to maintain a clear through-line and not rely on speculative theories.
Each and every time opposing counsel attempted to steer me off course by insinuating I supported damages based on speculative profits, I was able to reroute the testimony back to the basis thesis: damages were a direct result of Defendant’s interference in the process of studios obtaining the option and ultimate purchase of various Steinbeck properties. The properties at the heart of this trial were “East of Eden” and “Grapes of Wrath.”
Working with the 2nd and 9th Circuit Courts’ ruling that the 1983 Settlement agreement was valid, supported the Estate’s position in the case and allowed for my opinions to be upheld at every turn. The simplicity and clarity of my testimony supported the case made by the superlative legal team at Jenner & Block. This had a strong impact on the jury. The Estate prevailed in the case and was awarded a $13 million verdict.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Kathryn Arnold
Ms. Arnold has 20 years experience in film production and distribution. She understands the inner workings of the entertainment industry, its hiring practices, business development, financing and economic complexities. She has provided expert testimony and consultation on over 4 dozen cases regarding economic damage and lost wages from copyright infringement, breach of contract, disfigurement, personal injury, wrongful death, and economic downturn. Clients include Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher; Bowles & Verna LLP; Haynes & Boone; Shook, Hardy & Bacon, Dummit, Buchholz & Trapp; Jenner & Block
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Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer.For specific technical or legal advice on the information provided and related topics, please contact the author.