U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit Rules in Litigation Over John Steinbeck’s Estate

On Monday, September 9, 2019, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the compensatory damages award of $5.25 million in litigation stemming from author John Steinbeck’s estate, brought by Steinbeck’s stepdaughter, Waverly Scott Kaffaga. In its ruling, the Ninth Circuit vacated the $7.9 million punitive damage award against Steinbeck’s daughter-in-law, Gail Knight Steinbeck.

For almost half a century, the parties have been litigating over bequests made in John Steinbeck’s will. The litigation has continued as changes in copyright laws have impacted the rights to the author’s intellectual property. Kaffaga brought the current lawsuit in her capacity as executrix of her mother’s estate (Elaine Steinbeck was John Steinbeck’s third wife.) against Gail, in her capacity as executrix of the Estate of Thomas Steinbeck (John Steinbeck had two sons with his second wife, Gwyndolyn Conger.). In her lawsuit, Kaffaga alleged that Gail impeded attempts at a Steven Spielberg directed The Grapes of Wrath remake and a Jennifer Lawrence reboot of East of Eden.

In 2017, a federal jury awarded Kaffaga $5.25 million in compensatory damages for slander of title, breach of contract, and tortious interference with economic advantage. That jury also awarded Kaffaga $7.9 million in punitive damages. The Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s award of compensatory damages, finding the award supported by substantial evidence and sufficiently separate and non-duplicative under California law. The appeals court vacated the punitive damage award, however, because Kaffaga did not enter into the record sufficient evidence of Gail’s ability to pay the punitive damages. Gail testified that she receives between $120,000 and $200,000 every year from royalties.

The Ninth Circuit opinion was written by Judge Richard C. Tallman; it opens and closes with passages from Charles Dickens’s Bleak House and includes seven passages from John Steinbeck’s works. “This has to end. We cannot say it any clearer,” wrote Judge Tallman.

Additional Reading

Kaffaga v. The Estate of Thomas Steinbeck, No. 18-55336 (9th Cir. 2019)

Court Cuts Jury Award, Warns Steinbeck Kin to End Litigation, The New York Times (September 11, 2019)

Newsletter: The decades-long battles over John Steinbeck’s estate, Los Angeles Times (September 13, 2019)