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Supreme Court Staying Out of Steinbeck Family Dispute

October 7, 2020 by Dan McCue
John and Elaine Steinbeck. (Photo via Wikipedia Commons)

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court declined to get involved in a long-running dispute among members of the late author John Steinbeck’s family, leaving in place a $5 million award to his stepdaughter.

The author of “Cannery Row,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” “East of Eden” and at least a dozen other books died in 1968 and his heirs have been fighting in and out of court ever since.

The dispute began after it turned out Steinbeck left most of his estate to his third wife, Elaine Steinbeck, and stipulated that future profits from his work go to her.

He left his two sons from a previous marriage, Thomas and John Steinbeck IV, about $50,000 each.

In 1983, a lawsuit stemming from the initial division of the estate was settled with Elaine, Thomas and John Steinbeck IV all sharing in the book royalties, but the author’s widow retaining full control over the exploitation of his works in film, on television or on the stage.

When Elaine Steinbeck died in 2003, her daughter, Waverly Scott Kaffaga, inherited the estate.

This immediately prompted Thomas Steinbeck and Blake Smyle, Steinbeck’s granddaughter to sue the estate arguing they had been deprived of their right to profit from the elder Steinbeck’s intellectual property.

The suit failed, but the bad blood in the family continued to fester.

Kaffaga sued Thomas Steinbeck and his wife Gail Knight Steinbeck,  claiming that the couple had interfered with plans to develop new films from John Steinbeck’s novels and had hurt the estate financially.

Among these failed projects was a planned adaptation of “East of Eden” starring Jennifer Lawrence, and a remake of “The Grapes of Wrath” by Steven Spielberg.

After Thomas Steinbeck’s death, the legal battle between Kaffaga and Gail Steinbeck continued. Finally, in 2019, a jury in Los Angeles awarded Kaffaga $13 million in compensatory and punitive damages.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the compensatory damage award, but found the $7.9 million in punitive damages was “disproportionately large” compared to Gail Knight Steinbeck’s finances, which the panel said Kaffaga failed to accurately assess in her appellate briefs.

As is their custom, the justices did not explain their rationale for declining to hear the case.

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