A Los Angeles jury has awarded more than $13 million to the stepdaughter of Nobel Prize-winning author John Steinbeck in a courtroom battle to decide if the late writer’s daughter-in-law sabotaged efforts to produce film adaptations of “East of Eden” and “The Grapes of Wrath.”
Although family members of the late author have battled in courtrooms on both coasts for decades, the current lawsuit was brought in 2014 by Waverly Scott Kaffaga, daughter of Steinbeck’s third wife Elaine.
The defendants are Gail Knight Steinbeck, widow of the author’s son Thom, his estate and their company The Palladin Group.
Kaffaga alleged in the suit, filed in Los Angeles federal court, that the defendants intentionally sabotaged her ability as executor for the estate of Elaine Steinbeck to negotiate film deals for her stepfather’s works.
Thom left a videotaped deposition — played during the weeklong trial — before he died last year. Gail Steinbeck’s attorney did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Last winter, U.S. District Judge Terry Hatter issued an early judgment in favor of Kaffaga on claims of breach of contract, leaving the jury to decide the issue of whether Gail interfered with negotiations to produce film versions of the two novels.
Kaffaga sought almost $4 million to compensate for lost income from the unproduced adaptations, along with nearly $8 million in punitive damages.
The jury returned late Tuesday — after only a few hours of deliberations — and ruled in favor of Kaffaga, awarding her $13.15 million, which was $1 million more than she had asked for.
“We are pleased with the jury’s verdict that recognizes the Estate’s full control of the rights to John Steinbeck’s works,” Kaffaga said in a statement. “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.”
During trial, Kaffaga’s attorneys presented evidence that Gail Steinbeck had become involved in a proposal by Universal to adapt “East of Eden,” which was to star Jennifer Lawrence.
They also showed that Thom and Gail Steinbeck were involved in an ultimately failed plan by DreamWorks to develop a new version of “Grapes of Wrath,” helmed by Steven Spielberg.
When John Steinbeck died in 1968, he left his estate and future profits from his works to his widow. In turn, Elaine Steinbeck left her estate, including copyrights to her husband’s works, to daughter Waverly — whose biological father was the debonair actor Zachary Scott.
Plaintiff’s attorney Susan Kohlmann told the jury that for the past 15 years, Kaffaga has been unable to develop productions of her stepfather’s works because whenever Hollywood deals are discussed, Gail Steinbeck steps in and “tries to nudge her way under the tent.”
Gail Steinbeck’s attorney, Matthew I. Berger, countered that his client, in fact, never interfered in negotiations and, in fact, wants the deals to go through.
–City News Service