John Steinbeck’s Step-Daughter Wins $13M in Estate Feud

LOS ANGELES (CN) – A federal jury has awarded over $13 million to John Steinbeck’s step-daughter on claims that the author’s late son and widow interfered in movie adaptations of two of his most famous novels.

Capping the end of a weeklong trial, the jurors delivered the verdict in downtown LA Tuesday evening after a few hours of deliberating.

The brevity of the trial is in stark contrast to the bitter decades-long dispute over royalties and rights to the celebrated author’s most famous works. His eldest son Thomas Steinbeck had claimed that as the author’s only surviving son, he was cheated out of a fair share of royalties when Steinbeck’s stepdaughter Waverly Scott Kaffaga became executor of his estate after her mother Elaine Steinbeck died in 2003. Elaine was Steinbeck’s third wife.

Kaffaga said during the trial that Thomas and his wife Gail had impeded efforts to continue Steinbeck’s legacy with adaptations of his work.

Thomas, also a published author, died last year at 72 of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. He became better known for a family feud and legal fight that began in 1981, when he and his late brother John Steinbeck IV sued Elaine Steinbeck for a greater share of royalties from their father’s works.

In 2014, Kaffaga filed a lawsuit as executor of her mother’s estate. She claimed that Thomas, his wife Gail and their company Palladin Group impeded negotiations between the estate and Dreamworks Studios to make a Steven Spielberg-helmed “Grapes of Wrath” adaptation to star Daniel Day-Lewis, and “East of Eden” at Universal Studios with Jennifer Lawrence.

Both novels have had big screen outings before. In 1940, John Ford directed “Grapes of Wrath” with Henry Fonda starring in the Depression-era film. In 1955, Elia Kazan made “East of Eden” with James Dean.

Presiding U.S. District Judge Terry Hatter had already sided with Kaffaga on counts of breach of contract and slander of title. In the hands of the jurors was a remaining claim of intentional interference. They awarded Kaffaga $5.25 million in compensatory damages and $7.9 million in punitive damages.

In a statement, Kaffaga said she was pleased with the jury’s verdict.

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

Outside the courthouse, Gail Steinbeck said she would appeal. She accused Kaffaga of trying to bankrupt her and said she had spent more than $3.5 million in legal fees.

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

John Steinbeck died in 1968. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962.

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