A decades-long legal fight by relatives of author John Steinbeck over the rights to his works “has to end” a federal appeals court said in a ruling upholding $7 million in compensatory and punitive damages.
Citing, not Steinbeck but Charles Dickens for the longest will contest in fiction “Bleak House,” the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals said the Steinbeck dispute could be a modern-day Bleak House.
Despite losing repeatedly in a long history of litigation, Gail Knight Steinbeck, the author’s daughter-in-law, and the estate of Thomas Steinbeck, the author’s son, battled for control of literary works even though they were awarded to Elaine Steinbeck’s daughter, Waverly Kaffaga, the executor of Elaine’s estate.
The appeals court upheld a 2017 jury verdict that awarded Kaffaga $13.1 million, including $5.25 in compensatory damages for breach of contract, slander of title and interfering with economic advantage. The award also including $7.9 million in punitive damages.
But the appeals court lopped off nearly $6 million of the original punitive damages against Gail because Kaffaga failed to produce sufficient evidence of Gail’s ability to pay.
Jurors found that Gail and Thom Steinbeck had attempted to compete with Kaffaga’s effort to negotiate with Hollywood studios for remakes of movies based on Steinbeck’s work by disputing Kaffaga’s rights to various Steinbeck works, including Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden.
The dispute dates back to 1974 when Elaine Steinbeck and her two sons entered a deal to resolve competing interests in the author’s works, giving Elaine 50 percent rights and each son 25 percent. But Elaine retained control over use of the works.
After Congress amended copyright law in 1976, the sons sued Elaine again and in 1983 a new agreement gave each of the three parties a 33 percent right to royalties but Elaine retained complete authority to negotiate and authorize use of the works.
In 1995, Thom married Gail Knight Steinbeck. In 2004, the brothers sued Kaffaga and other involved in publishing Steinbeck works, in federal court in New York.
Despite multiple rounds of lawsuits, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the validity of the 1983 agreement, foreclosing the sons’ rights to gain control of Elaine’s authority, which was passed to Kaffaga.
Despite that ruling, Gail and the two brothers, sued again in Los Angeles in 2014 and Gail contacted various producers to compete with Kaffaga in negotiating with Hollywood studios.
“Defendants must now stop attempting to relitigate the validity and enforceability of the 1983 agreement,” the appeals court held. “They must also stop representing to the marketplace that they have any intellectual property rights or control over John Steinbeck’s works. The 1983 agreement vests those control rights exclusively in Kaffaga, as successor to her mother Elaine,” the court said.
“This has to end. We cannot say it any clearer,” Judge Richard Tallman wrote.
The court found sufficient evidence that the defendants acted with “fraud or malice” to justify the $7.9 million in punitive damages, but because Kaffaga did not show Gail could pay her share of the damages, the court cut her nearly $6 million in damages.
Case: Kaffaga v. Estate of Thomas Steinbeck, No. 18-55336