Decades of family squabbles led to a major milestone on September 6, when a Los Angeles jury awarded the stepdaughter of American novelist John Steinbeck a substantial sum for film adaptation rights.
Waverly Scott Kaffaga, the daughter of Steinbeck’s third wife and the executor of his estate, contended that her step-siblings prohibited her ability to license film adaptions of the literary legend’s works. The jury agreed. The award of $13.15 million sets to recoup losses for film adaptations and remakes of American literary classics like “East of Eden” and “The Grapes of Wrath” – $5.25 million in compensatory damages, and an additional $7.9 million in punitive damages.
Jenner & Block lawyers Susan J. Kohlmann, Alison I. Stein and Andrew J. Thomas represented the plaintiff. The suit was filed against Kaffaga’s step-brother and John Steinbeck’s son, Thom Steinbeck and his wife, Gail Knight Steinbeck. Ms. Steinbeck was ultimately the sole defendant, since Thom Steinbeck passed away in 2016. The defendants were represented by Matthew I. Berger and Robert M. Graham of the Matthew I. Berger Law Group
Jenner & Block also successfully defended Kaffaga and the Estate of Elaine Steinbeck (Steinbeck’s third wife and widow) in a 2015 copyright lawsuit filed by Thom Steinbeck and Blake Smyle. At issue was a 1983 settlement that gave Elaine complete authority over the works of John Steinbeck in exchange for an increased portion of the royalties, and Thom and Blake’s exercise of certain termination rights under the copyright laws. After Elaine died in 2003, her daughter (the Estate’s Executor and one of the beneficiaries) took over control of the rights. At that time, Thom attempted to exercise certain termination rights under the copyright laws that set off several lawsuits that Jenner & Block successfully litigated on behalf of Elaine’s Estate and its beneficiaries.