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Judge lets Heard counterclaim move forward in Depp defamation case

With less than three weeks left before trial, attorneys for actor Johnny Depp failed to convince a Virginia judge to toss claims by actress Amber Heard that Depp conspired to damage her reputation.

FAIRFAX, Va. (CN) — When an associate of Johnny Depp used the word "hoax" to describe Amber Heard’s assertion that she was abused by the actor during their marriage, was that defamation or simply an opinion?  

That question will be among the issues decided by a Virginia jury when a massive defamation case involving the two Hollywood stars goes to trial in Fairfax County next month.

On Thursday, Chief Circuit Court Judge Penney S. Azcarate ruled against motions for summary judgment by Depp’s legal team, which would have dampened or obliterated Heard’s defense along with her counterclaim before the trial begins. 

More than three years have come and gone since Depp filed a lawsuit accusing Heard, his ex-wife, of defaming him by describing herself as a domestic abuse survivor in a 2018 Washington Post op-ed. Filed in early March 2019, Depp's lawsuit asked for $50 million in damages. The following year, Heard filed a $100 million counterclaim contending that Depp had orchestrated a campaign aimed at damaging her reputation.

“Not content to let a jury decide this lawsuit, Depp used his attorney, Adam Waldman, to orchestrate a false and defamatory smear campaign against Ms. Heard that has included false and defamatory statements to reporters repeatedly accusing Ms. Heard of being a liar and a hoax artist and accusing Ms. Heard of the crime of perjury,” according to a brief filed by Heard's attorneys.

Heard’s lawyers also allege that Waldman attempted to “intimidate and threaten witnesses to influence their testimony in a manner adverse to Ms. Heard.”

Two diametrically opposed versions of events have been put forward, remarked one of Depp’s lawyers, Samuel Moniz of Brown Rudnick.

“Context is everything,” he said in court on Thursday, adding “attorneys are advocates" and a reader or listener would interpret an attorney's remarks in that context.  

Depp’s attorneys also contend that no evidence supports Heard’s charge that he conspired or directed publication of a number of derogatory statements about her.

In addition to refusing to dismiss Heard's counterclaim, Azcarate also ruled from the bench Thursday that Depp's legal team cannot stop Heard from using an anti-SLAPP defense. SLAPP refers to strategic lawsuit against public participation, cases aimed at silencing critics from speaking out on subjects of public concern. 

Anti-SLAPP immunity is meant to protect free speech “solely on statements of public concern,” remarked attorney Benjamin Chew, also representing Depp. He argued that Heard is not being sued for making statements of public concern, but for the defamatory implication that she was the victim of domestic abuse and sexual violence at the hands of Depp.  

But Heard’s attorney Elaine Charlson Bredehoft countered that Depp’s lawsuit is "based solely on the op-ed. That's why it is a matter of public concern."

The judge’s ruling will allow Heard's team to use the anti-SLAPP defense during the trial, which is set to begin April 11.  


Categories / Entertainment, Media, Trials

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