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Court cuts jury award, warns Steinbeck kin to end litigation

LOS ANGELES (AP) — A federal appeals court attempted to close the book on endless litigation between the relatives of author John Steinbeck in a ruling that upheld a $5 million verdict against his daughter-in-law, but threw out $8 million she faced in punitive damages.

The decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday delivered partial victories to the late author’s stepdaughter, Waverly Scott Kaffaga, and to Gail Steinbeck, the widow of his son, Thomas.

The court upheld a jury verdict two years ago in Los Angeles federal court that found Gail Steinbeck and her husband meddled with Kaffaga’s plans as executor of the estate to profit off the Nobel Prize-winning author’s works.

Gail Steinbeck helped kill a remake of “The Grapes of Wrath” to be directed by Steven Spielberg and an “East of Eden” reboot to star Jennifer Lawrence, Kaffaga said.

The lawsuit followed decades of disputes between Thomas Steinbeck and Kaffaga’s mother over control of the author’s works. Kaffaga’s mother, Elaine, was Steinbeck’s third wife and was married to him when he died in 1968.

Elaine Steinbeck died in 2003, leaving her daughter as executor of the estate. Gail Steinbeck became executor of her husband’s estate when he died in 2016.

The court threw out the punitive damages because it said Kaffaga hadn’t shown Gail Steinbeck, who lives off publishing royalties of $120,000 to $200,000 a year — could afford it.

Gail Steinbeck’s rental home and belongings in the ritzy Santa Barbara County enclave of Montecito were severely damaged or destroyed by mudslides last year that killed 23 people, her lawyer said in court filings. He estimated it would take her 65 years to pay off the punitive damages.

While lifting that penalty from Steinbeck, the ruling may finally free Kaffaga to make the most of Steinbeck’s copyrights. His major works have not come to the big screen in recent years.

Kaffaga “is looking forward to bringing Steinbeck’s many works to life for future generations, attorney Susan Kohlmann said in a statement.

The 3-0 ruling said it should mark an end to nearly a half-century of coast-to-coast litigation over the rights to Steinbeck’s works. The judges said Kaffaga even could seek a lower court injunction to end what it called Steinbeck’s “recidivist litigation.”

“This has to end. We cannot say it any clearer,” Judge Richard Tallman wrote.

Gail Steinbeck had previously said after her husband lost a related case in a New York court that she wouldn’t stop fighting until “I draw my last breath.”

While she laughed off that comment during testimony two years ago as “silly,” her lawyer on Wednesday wouldn’t rule out future court action.

Attorney Matthew Dowd said they were pleased the court struck down the punitive damages, but he said they were “assessing our options moving forward.”

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