There will likely be an appeal, but for now John Steinbeck’s stepdaughter has won a lawsuit claiming that obstacles created by the author’s son and daughter, made it impossible for her to develop Hollywood movies based on his novels.
When Stephen Spielberg and Jennifer Lawrence want to make a movie from an author’s work, it seems like there would be little reason for it not to go forward. But a jury in Los Angeles (where else?) found that Steinbeck’s stepdaughter, Waverly Kaffaga, was prevented from using materials she owned by Steinbeck’s son and daughter.
The Daily Business Review reports, in “Steinbeck Stepdaughter Wins $13M in Suit Over Movie Rights,” that Steinbeck's stepdaughter claimed remakes of "The Grapes of Wrath" and "East of Eden" have fallen apart over the years.
Kaffaga, who is the daughter of Steinbeck's third wife, Elaine, sued the estate of her stepbrother Thomas Steinbeck, who died last year, along with his widow, Gail, and their company. The lawsuit followed a decades-long battle between Thomas Steinbeck and Kaffaga's mother over control of the author's works.
After the verdict, Kaffaga made a statement in her capacity as executor for the estate of Elaine Steinbeck, "We are pleased with the jury's verdict that recognizes the estate's full control of the rights to John Steinbeck's works. The outcome upholds the estate's mission of sharing his legacy with the world."
Gail said she was disappointed in the verdict, but was confident she’d prevail on appeal.
A judge had already ruled that the couple breached a contract with Kaffaga. The jury in Los Angeles was asked to decide if Thomas and Gail Steinbeck interfered with deals and should pay damages. The jury decided the couple had done so and awarded Kaffaga $5.25 million in compensatory damages and $7.9 million in punitive damages.
Kaffaga’s attorney said Gail found out about film projects and threatened movie makers. Gail told them she and her husband had the legal rights to the work and they would also try to make secret side deals, without telling Kaffaga.
The attorney representing Steinbeck’s widow stated that Kaffaga was not one of Steinbeck’s heirs and had never been adopted by him. According to Berger, the lead defense attorney, Thomas was a co-owner of the copyrights to Steinbeck’s works and received royalties. Berger also said that Kaffaga’s claim lacked merit, since many movies that are optioned never see the light of day and assessing a value to an unmade movie is speculation at best.
Reference: Daily Business Review (September 7, 2017) “Steinbeck Stepdaughter Wins $13M in Suit Over Movie Rights”