Steinbeck’s Stepdaughter Battles For Her Rights to his Estate

SteinbeckA Los Angeles jury found in favor of Steinbeck's step-daughter, who claimed that litigation over Steinbeck's estate prevented her from making the most of his copyrights when Hollywood heavyweights Steven Spielberg and Jennifer Lawrence were interested in making films of his classic works.

Waverly Kaffaga, the late John 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 of 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.

Gail’s attorney said Kaffaga wasn’t adopted by John Steinbeck and wasn’t one of his heirs. He said Thomas was a co-owner of his father's copyright and received royalties. Gail thought her husband received $120,000-$200,000 annually in publishing royalties from the books. Her attorney said Kaffaga's claim was without merit, and she wasn't entitled to any damages because of the fact that most movies optioned are never made. As a result, the estimated revenue from unproduced projects was speculative.

Reference: Daily Business Review (September 7, 2017) “Steinbeck Stepdaughter Wins $13M in Suit Over Movie Rights”


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