Appeal in John Steinbeck lawsuit heard in court

Practice Focuses

Both sides had another day in court Tuesday in a family battle that has been waged for decades over who controls the works of iconic author John Steinbeck.

A three-judge panel of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments to an appeal by the estate of Steinbeck’s late son, Thomas Steinbeck. The panel was in Anchorage to hear various cases.

Thomas Steinbeck’s estate is contesting a 2017 federal jury verdict in California that awarded more than $13 million to the author’s stepdaughter, Waverly Scott Kaffaga, whose mother was John Steinbeck’s third wife. The lawsuit said Thomas Steinbeck and his wife, Gail Steinbeck, impeded film adaptations of the classic works. A judge earlier ruled in the same case that the couple breached an agreement between Kaffaga’s late mother and Thomas Steinbeck and his late brother, John Steinbeck IV.

Neither Gail Steinbeck nor Waverly Kaffaga attended Tuesday’s proceeding.

Attorney Matthew Dowd, representing the Thomas Steinbeck estate, told the circuit judges the appeal contends the 1983 agreement was in violation of a 1976 change to copyright law that gave artists or their blood relatives the right to terminate copyright deals. The appeal also disputes the award handed up by the jury, maintaining it was not supported by substantial evidence of Gail Steinbeck’s ability to pay.

Kaffaga’s attorney, Susan Kohlmann, told the circuit judges multiple courts, including an earlier Ninth Circuit decision, have already upheld the agreement as binding and valid, and deemed it enforceable. She called the contract argument a “complete red herring.”

Dowd disagreed. He said previous decisions on the agreement didn’t completely deal with the particular issue involving the 1976 statute. He said Gail Steinbeck was not allowed to fully address the issue in court.

The appeals panel did not rule immediately on the case. Dowd earlier said he didn’t expect a decision for several months.

The judges appeared skeptical that the contract issue wasn’t adequately dealt with in previous rulings, and they questioned whether they were being asked to review another circuit court’s decision.

The judges also said the punitive damages of about $8 million awarded by the Los Angeles jury in 2017 appeared to have been decided without evidence of Gail Steinberg’s ability to pay. If that part was stricken from the award, there would still remain $5.25 million in compensatory damages, they noted.

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