Ninth Circuit Won’t Rehear Steinbeck Family Copyright Spat

PASADENA, Calif. (CN) – The Ninth Circuit will not revisit its decision in a long-running copyright feud between family and heirs of renowned author John Steinbeck.

This undated file photo shows American author John Steinbeck, winner of the 1940 Pulitzer Prize for his novel “The Grapes of Wrath.” (AP Photo, File)

Waverly Scott Kaffaga, Steinbeck’s stepdaughter, claimed Steinbeck’s late son and the son’s widow disrupted her negotiations with Hollywood production companies to bring adaptations of “Grapes of Wrath” and “East of Eden” to the silver screen.

A federal jury awarded Kaffaga $5 million in compensatory damages and nearly $8 million in punitive damages against Gail Knight Steinbeck – the wife of Steinbeck’s deceased son Thomas Steinbeck – and their company, The Palladin Group.

But a Ninth Circuit panel ruled the $7.9 million in punitive damages was “disproportionately large” compared to Gail Knight Steinbeck’s finances, which the panel said Kaffaga failed to accurately assess her appellate briefs.

The panel affirmed the compensatory damages award and summary judgment on breach of contract and slander of title claims, and gave the trial court the green light to “reconsider Kaffaga’s request for an injunction to put an end to this recidivist litigation.”

In a petition for rehearing en banc, Steinbeck attorney Matthew Dowd argued for a reversal of the panel’s conclusion that collateral estoppel applied to Kaffaga’s copyright claims and that defendants had engaged in “tortious conduct.”

Dowd wrote in the petition that courts have yet to make a precedential decision on the collateral estoppel question.

“The outcome here frustrates Congress’s intent of ensuring that termination rights are exercisable by only the author or a statutory heir during the statutory notice period,” Dowd wrote in the petition. “Without the issue being actually litigated and actually decided, collateral estoppel cannot apply.”

But U.S. Circuit Judge Sandra Segal Ikuta, a George W. Bush appointee, voted to deny the petition for rehearing en banc. U.S. Circuit Judges N. Randy Smith, a George W. Bush appointee, and Richard Tallman, a Bill Clinton appointee, recommended the same.

“The full court has been advised of the petition for rehearing en banc and no judge has requested a vote on whether to rehear the matter en banc,” the panel said in a 1-page order Thursday.

The parties’ attorneys did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

%d bloggers like this: