John Steinbeck’s Stepdaughter Awarded $13M In Family Feud Over Movie Rights

The jury is still out whether a new adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath will be going forward but in less than two hours today a federal jury in downtown L.A. decided that John Steinbeck’s stepdaughter deserves more than $13 million to settle a family feud over who controls the rights to the great author’s works.

“We are pleased with the jury’s verdict that recognizes the Estate’s full control of the rights to John Steinbeck’s works,” said Waverly Scott Kaffaga in a statement Tuesday evening after the jury responded in her favor over the now deceased Thomas Steinbeck and his widow Gail Knight Steinbeck.

First filed in 2014 and after a weeklong trial in late August, the battle came out of Kaffaga’s view that the author’s son, who died in August 2016, and his wife repeatedly tried to interfere in bringing big screen versions of Wrath from DreamWorks and East of Eden from Universal and Imagine Entertainment. The two alleged that they were in possession of at least part of the rights that Kaffaga has claimed she held as the daughter of Steinbeck’s third wife, who passed away in 2003.

“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,” Kaffaga (pictured to the right) added after today’s ruling.

In a trial that at one point saw a 2013 Deadline exclusive by my colleague Mike Fleming Jr cited on the stand, Kaffaga’s Jenner & Block lawyers presented to the jury evidence that they said proved Thomas Steinbeck and his wife kneecapped the Universal project and sought what was termed a “side deal” on the Spielberg film. Though none of them were ever called to the stand, the trial did have the possibility of seeing Steven Spielberg, James Franco and perhaps even Ron Howard and Brian Grazer take the stand as witnesses. Amblin Partners COO and general counsel Chris Floyd did testify, telling the court that the author’s son and daughter-in-law didn’t actually do anything to hinder the Grapes of Wrath movie moving forward.

Today’s resolution came after Kaffaga’s had already succeed last year in a summary judgment by U.S. District Judge Terry Hatter that found Thomas Steinbeck and his wife breached a 1983 agreement that they couldn’t independently move forward granting rights to a new Wrath movie. In a trial that was to assess what damages were owed, if any, Tuesday saw the federal jury actually award Kaffaga $1.3 million more than she was asking for. The full award today was $3.95 million in compensatory damages with another $9.2 million in punitive damages.

However, the matter is likely not over according to Thomas Steinbeck’s widow. Gail Knight Steinbeck told the media on Tuesday that she intended to instruct her attorneys to seek a stay of the $13.15 million judgment and file an appeal forthwith.

Matthew Berger and Robert Graham of Santa Barbara’s Matthew I. Berger Law Group represented Gail Knight Steinbeck, the estate of Thomas Steinbeck and their Palladin Group company in the trial – and very likely at that appeal too.

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