After a jury determined that Amber Heard was guilty of defaming The Innocent Pirate in her Washington Post op-ed about being the victim of domestic abuse, she was ordered to pay out millions of dollars in damages to her ex-husband.
Soon after the trial finished, however, Ms Heard’s attorney appeared on morning talk shows to say that her client would be unable to pay the $8.35million in damages toThe Pirates of the Caribbean star.
“Oh no. Absolutely not,” said attorney Elaine Bredehoft when asked by anchor Savannah Guthrie on the Today show if her client could pay the vast amount to Mr Depp.
Mr Depp won the defamation lawsuit he brought against his ex-wife on all three counts. He was awarded $10m in compensatory charges, related to lost career opportunities, and $5m in punitive damages. Judge Penney Azcarate later reduced the punitive damages to $350,000, the maximum allowed in the state of Virginia, where the trial took place.
For her part, Ms Heard was awarded $2m in damages for one of her three counterclaims. It left her owing $8.35m in total to Mr Depp.
While Ms Heard’s financial status is unclear, Ms Bredehoft did disclose during the trial’s closing arguments that her client has racked up more than $6m in legal costs alone.
In 2016, the 36-year-old received $7m in a settlement from Mr Depp when the pair divorced. Those funds, she had previously said, were intended to be equally split as donations to the American Civil Liberties Union and the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.
However during the high-stakes trial, it was reviled in video evidence presented by Mr Depp’s attorneys that Ms Heard had yet to make good on that promise. The actress said under cross-examination that she “fully intends” to honour her pledge.
“I would love him to stop suing me so I can,” Ms Heard told the Fairfax County District Court.
It was reviled in trial testimonies that Ms Heard’s acting career has been hampered by the high-profile defamation case, Newsweek reported.
Combined with Ms Bredehoft’s post-verdict interview statements, it has led to speculation whether Ms Heard will be capable of footing the costly damages bill and, if she can’t, what her legal recourse might be.
Though she didn’t address any financial strain in her statement after the trial, Ms Heard did acknowledge a deep “heartbreak” at the jury’s decision.
“The disappointment I feel today is beyond words,” Ms Heard wrote. “I’m heartbroken that the mountain of evidence still was not enough to stand up to the disproportionate power, influence, and sway of my ex-husband.”
The potential pathways that Ms Heard could take to avoid paying out millions of dollars are not straightforward, and could result in even more legal fees, according to CBS.
Appealing the verdict is one way Ms Heard could try to avoid paying out the $8.35m. Her attorney told theToday show that her legal team is pursuing this option.
“Absolutely,” Ms Bredehoft said to the question of an appeal. “And she has some excellent grounds for it.”
Should Ms Heard take this route, she may still be required to post bond for the damages – plus interest – as the appeal makes its way through the court, according to CBS’s MoneyWatch.
If Ms Heard decides not to pursue an appeal, and is still unable to pay the damages, this could trigger wage garnishment – which allows a judge to order a certain sum be cut from earnings or pay checks, and rerouted to a creditor.
Under Virginia law, Mr Depp would need a court ruling before wage garnishment could be put in place. The measure has limits with rules varying by state. In Virginia, “a creditor can garnish the lesser of 25 per cent of your disposable earnings, or the amount by which your disposable earnings exceed 40 times the federal minimum wage”, according to legal site Nolo.com.
A third option is filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy but this path is also an uncertain one.
Bruce Markell, professor of bankruptcy law at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, told Law & Crime that because of the nature of Ms Heard’s case, she could not be discharged from her payments by filing for bankruptcy. Defamation is considered an intentional tort, meaning the misconduct was carried out with malice or willfullness.
“What separates Heard’s case from regular tort cases is the finding of intent,” he told the news outlet. “Bankruptcy law does not permit most intentional torts (battery, assault, etc.) to be discharged. Defamation fits in due to the required findings of malice or intent to injure another.”
A final potential reprieve for Ms Heard is one she has no control over: but rather would have to be initiated by Mr Depp.
The actor could decide to waive monetary damages or if Ms Heard decides to launch an appeal, drop the amount in negotiations.
It is unclear whether either party would take this path. However, Mr Depp emphasised in a post-verdict statement that his “goal” in bringing the defamation suit had been “to reveal the truth, regardless of the outcome”.
“Speaking the truth was something that I owed to my children and to all those who have remained steadfast in their support of me,” he wrote on Instagram.
“I feel at peace knowing I have finally accomplished that.”