John Steinbeck’s stepdaughter wins US$13 million in suit over squandered film rights

She sued the author’s son and daughter-in-law, claiming they impeded film remakes of ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ and ‘East of Eden’

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 07 September, 2017, 2:41pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 September, 2017, 8:27pm

A federal jury in Los Angeles has awarded John Steinbeck’s stepdaughter more than US$13 million in a lawsuit claiming the author’s son and daughter-in-law impeded film adaptations of his classic works.

Jurors on Tuesday found in favour of Waverly Scott Kaffaga, who had alleged that long-running litigation over Steinbeck’s estate prevented her from making the most of his copyrights at a time when marquee names such as director Steven Spielberg and actress Jennifer Lawrence were interested in bringing the novelist’s masterpieces back to the screen. She claimed remakes of The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden fell apart over the years.

Kaffaga, daughter of the late author’s third wife, Elaine, sued the estate of stepbrother Thomas Steinbeck, who died last year, his widow, Gail, and their company.

After the verdict, Kaffaga issued a statement in her capacity as executor for the estate of Elaine Steinbeck.“We are pleased with the jury’s verdict that recognises the Estate’s full control of the rights to John Steinbeck’s works,” she said. “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.”

Defence lawyer Matthew Berger did not immediately respond on Wednesday to messages seeking comment on the jury decision.

The lawsuit followed a decades-long dispute between Thomas Steinbeck and Kaffaga’s mother over control of the author’s works.

Thomas Steinbeck has lost most rounds in court, including a lawsuit he and the daughter of his late brother, John Steinbeck IV, brought that spurred Kaffaga to countersue in the current case.

A judge had already ruled the couple breached a contract with Kaffaga. It was up to the Los Angeles jurors to decide if Thomas and Gail Steinbeck interfered with deals and should pay up.

The jury decided on Tuesday in favour of Kaffaga on the remaining issue and awarded her US$5.25 million in compensatory damages – plus US$7.9 million in punitive damages.

Gail Steinbeck’s lawyer said she never intentionally interfered in deals she and her husband would have benefited from and that would have served their interest promoting the Nobel Prize winner’s legacy.

An lawyer for Kaffaga said Gail Steinbeck caught wind of projects and then threatened filmmakers that she and her husband had legal rights to the work and also cut secret side deals without notifying Kaffaga.

In one instance, Thomas Steinbeck secretly signed a US$650,000 deal with DreamWorks to be an executive producer on a new film version of The Grapes of Wrath, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.

Producers and directors later dropped the remakes because they feared litigation by the Steinbecks, Kaffaga’s lawyer Susan Kohlmann said in her opening statement.

Kohlmann put Gail Steinbeck on the witness box early in the case and displayed emails that she wrote suggesting that a reported remake of East of Eden starring Lawrence would be “litigation city”.

Another email Gail Steinbeck wrote after her husband lost a related court case in New York suggested litigation wouldn’t end until “I draw my last breath”.

Steinbeck laughed off that comment in testimony, saying: “Oh, that was silly.”

Berger, the lead defence lawyer, noted that Kaffaga was never adopted by John Steinbeck and was not one of his heirs. He said Thomas Steinbeck was a co-owner of his father’s copyright and received royalties.

Gail Steinbeck estimated conservatively that her husband received US$120,000 a year in publishing royalties from the author’s work – and as much as US$200,000 in some years.

Berger said Kaffaga’s claim had no merit and she wasn’t entitled to any damages because most films optioned are never made and that estimated revenue from unproduced projects was speculation. Berger suggested Kaffaga was using Thomas’ inheritance to sue his widow.