A three-judge panel of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will be in Alaska’s largest city to hear arguments in an appeal by the estate of Steinbeck’s late son Thomas over a 2017 jury verdict in California.
AP News published a story last week, “Judges to hear appeal in lawsuit over John Steinbeck works,” reporting that in the California case, a federal jury awarded the author’s stepdaughter Waverly Scott Kaffaga $13 million. She claimed that Steinbeck’s son and daughter-in-law, Gail Steinbeck, hampered motion picture adaptations of his iconic works. A jury in Los Angeles was asked to decide if Thomas and Gail Steinbeck interfered with deals and should pay. Kaffaga sued her stepbrother, his widow, Gail and their company.
Attorney Matthew Dowd, who represents the Thomas Steinbeck estate, said part of the appeal claims that 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 jury award, maintaining it was not supported by “substantial evidence.”
Kaffaga, who’s the executor for the estate of her mother, Elaine Steinbeck, the author’s widow and third wife, had alleged that long-running litigation over the author’s estate kept her from making the most of his work, when big names like Steven Spielberg and Jennifer Lawrence wanted to bring the classics, “The Grapes of Wrath” and “East of Eden,” back to the screen. Kaffaga said the movie deals instead fell apart over the years.
Kaffaga claimed that Thomas secretly signed a $650,000 deal with DreamWorks to be an executive producer on a remake of “The Grapes of Wrath,” that originally starred Henry Fonda and won two Oscars. She also said that Gail learned of projects and threatened moviemakers, arguing she and her husband possessed the legal rights to the novels. Dowd said Thomas, who died in 2016, conveyed his intention to exercise those rights, prompting Kaffaga to claim a contract breach. He said Thomas was within his right to do so under the 1976 “termination rights” clause.
In the same action, a judge ruled the couple breached a contract between Kaffaga’s late mother and Thomas Steinbeck and his late brother, John Steinbeck IV. The brothers’ mother was the author’s second wife, Gwyndolyn Conger.
“We would like the court to rule that the 1983 Agreement violates the statute and, therefore, cannot prevent the heirs from exercising their termination rights,” Dowd said. “Relatedly, we are asking for a new trial and that the damages awards be vacated, because they are too speculative and there is no legal basis for awarding punitive damages under California law.”
Kohlmann argues on appeal that several courts have already upheld the contract as legally binding. The agreement, which resolved earlier litigation, gives Elaine’s estate the “exclusive power and authority to control the exploitation and termination” of some of Steinbeck’s works, in exchange for the sons getting a greater piece of domestic royalties.
Even so, the attorney wrote that “Appellants again seek to hijack this lawsuit and use it as a mechanism to relitigate the issue of the validity of the 1983 agreement, by arguing that it is an ‘agreement to the contrary’ under the Copyright Act.”
“The District Court properly excluded such argument, evidence, and testimony that sought to undermine the holdings of multiple courts confirming the validity of the 1983 agreement,” they argued.
The lawsuit comes after decades of fighting and litigation between Thomas and Kaffaga’s mother over control of the author’s works. Thomas lost most of the court battles, including a lawsuit he and the daughter of his late brother, John Steinbeck IV, brought that made Kaffaga to countersue in the case being appealed.
Reference: AP News (August 5, 2019) “Judges to hear appeal in lawsuit over John Steinbeck works”