This guest post was contributed by Anne M. Lum, a student in Southwestern Law School’s SCALE program who also is now taking the Entertainment Law and Emerging Web course.
When Salinas, Calif., native John Steinbeck chronicled how the economic ravages of the Great Depression led the fictional Tom Joad and his family to flee the Oklahoma Dust Bowl in misguided hopes for a brighter future in the Golden State, who knew the Nobel Laureate also had planted the seeds of a multi-generational legal brawl among his own kin?
The latest outbreak of this family feud not only has resurrected the public spotlight for author’s iconic works, including the Grapes of Wrath and another Salinas saga, East of Eden, it has engulfed some of Hollywood’s major players. It also led a federal jury in recent days to award a $13.15 million verdict, including damages, as part of a legal donnybrook over Steinbeck’s literary estate that has gone on for so long that no blood relatives of the author will collect these riches.
The victorious litigant for now is Wendy Scott Kaffaga, Steinbeck’s step-daughter from his marriage with his third wife, Elaine. The author left Elaine Steinbeck control of his literary works, and most of their profit. He left his two sons from a previous marriage, Thomas (aka Thom) and John Steinbeck IV, $50,000 each.
But various members of the family for decades have gone up and down the federal courts, contesting who controls a cache of California classic stories, especially because of the timing of their copyrights. They have done so, even as Hollywood has continued to pursue possible deals for Steinbeck properties, which already have yielded, big box office grossing, Academy Award-winning movies.
The latest Steinbeck litigation has highlighted that the some of modern movie making’s big names, including Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard, Brian Grazer, and James Franco, all chased deals that might have led them to film remakes they hoped would rival originals by John Ford, Elia Kazan, Henry Fonda, John Carradine, Russell Simpson, James Dean, Raymond Massey, Jane Darwell, and Jo Van Fleet. (Grape’s 1940s black-and-white trailer can give a modern viewer a sense of the excitement surrounding the film classic)
U.S. Senior District Judge Terry Hatter, sorting through the long, complex case, already had found for Kaffaga on summary judgement that Thom Steinbeck, now deceased, and his wife, Gail, and their Palladin Company had wrongly claimed control over the Steinbeck copyrights, harming the catalog as a whole, and interfering with movie deals for East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath, costing the estate millions of dollars in potential revenue.
The judge left it to a seven-person jury after a week-long trial to figure what Kaffaga was owed. Jurors in early September decided she should be paid $5.25 million in compensatory damages, including for lost potential profits from the film deals, as well as $7.9 million in punitive damages against Gail Steinbeck and the Palladin Group. The losers, by the way, have said they will appeal.