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John Steinbeck’s Stepdaughter Awarded $13 Million in Court Battle Over Film Rights

Waverly Scott Kaffaga prevailed in lawsuit against Gail Knight Steinbeck, widow of the author’s son

One dubious battle might be at an end. The stepdaughter of literary legend John Steinbeck has prevailed in a lawsuit over control of the rights to his works, and was awarded $13.15 million by a Los Angeles jury on Tuesday night.

Waverly Scott Kaffaga filed a lawsuit in 2014 against Thom Steinbeck, the author’s son, and his wife, Gail Knight Steinbeck, alleging that they were interfering with her ability to license film adaptations of the author’s work. Thom Steinbeck died in 2016, making his wife the sole defendant in the suit.

At issue is control over the rights to Steinbeck’s works and attempts to make films based on “The Grapes of Wrath” and “East of Eden” that fizzled. Kaffaga’s mother, Steinbeck’s third wife Elaine, inherited control over the rights after his death in 1968. A settlement in 1983 provided some royalties to Thom Steinbeck.

However, Kaffaga asserts that control remained with her mother, and that she inherited them upon her mother’s death, but that the defendants had acted to prevent an adaptation of “Grapes” at Dreamworks, and an adaptation of “East of Eden” at Universal/Imagine, from going forward.

In October, a U.S. district judge granted summary judgment that Thom Steinbeck had breached the 1983 deal. But a jury would determine whether or not Gail Knight Steinbeck deliberately interfered with the attempted adaptations.

Tonight, the jury decided she did. It awarded Kaffaga $5.25 million in compensatory damages, and an additional $7.9 million in punitive damages.

“We are pleased with the jury’s verdict that recognizes the Estate’s full control of the rights to John Steinbeck’s works,” Kaffaga said in a statement provided to TheWrap. “The outcome upholds the Estate’s mission of sharing his legacy with the world. We are thankful to the members of the jury for their time and service.”

Pamela Chelin contributed to this report.