Inside Amber Heard’s Next Legal Nightmare

Amber Heard
Actress Amber Heard. Photo: Shawn Thew/AFP
Eriq Gardner
September 26, 2022

This week, Fox’s Tubi streaming service will premiere Hot Take: The Depp/Heard Trial, a reenactment of last summer’s heavily-watched Johnny DeppAmber Heard spectacle. Even by B-movie standards, this is a pretty rushed and exploitative feat—especially because the story isn’t over. For real insight into what went wrong for Heard, skip this sure-to-be-awful TV adaptation and wait for the next trial. Yes, less than four months after the conclusion of the Depp-Heard showdown, we’re headed for yet another round of litigation—one that promises to reveal even more of the jockeying and power plays inside Heard’s camp.

As a refresher, Depp sued Heard in 2019, two years after their marriage ended, over a Washington Post op-ed in which she identified herself as a “public figure representing domestic abuse.” It took three years for this case to get to trial, and in that time, Heard switched her legal team multiple times. At first, the defense was led by Eric George, a well-connected Los Angeles-based litigator who is quite adept at handling celebrity complications (a Mel Gibson custody fight, a secret Kim Kardashian engagement, etc.), but ended up being not quite a perfect match. Then came Roberta Kaplan, who had successfully fought for same-sex marriage at the Supreme Court and co-founded the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund (and more recently ran into criticism for helping then-governor Andrew Cuomo attempt to discredit an accuser). Her involvement suggested Heard’s legal defense might become a pro-feminist cause, but after a few procedural pre-trial losses, she was out too. Finally, her defense rested with Elaine Bredehoft, who has a decent reputation locally but—let’s be honest—came to the big trial with a questionable strategy (i.e. contesting the he-said, she-said particulars of who was nastiest during the marriage instead of focusing the jurors on what was actually written by Heard), and seemed overwhelmed by basic tasks like leading direct examination without getting interrupted every three seconds by Depp attorney Camille Vasquez

Of course, there was more to the story behind all those pre-trial shakeups, which may soon become public thanks to a secondary legal drama between two insurance companies that have been secretly fighting over Heard’s sizable legal bill. After all, many forms of homeowner’s insurance will cover certain legal expenses—but only up to a certain point. And Heard’s expenses were truly astronomical, surpassing $8 million before the six-week trial even began. Heard has since brought on two more top lawyers (David L. Axelrod and Jay Ward Brown of Ballard Spahr) to handle her appeal. This could easily become a $15 million bill of horrors when all is said and done, potentially dwarfing the $10 million or so that Heard has already been ordered to fork over to Depp.

So who’s paying? Well, that’s the $15 million question. 

In July 2021, Travelers Commercial Insurance Company sued New York Marine General Insurance Company and demanded reimbursement for half of what it had paid to defend a mutual client. Heard wasn’t identified as the insured in these court papers—which largely explains why this dispute has stayed under the radar until now. Travelers had issued a homeowners policy to Heard while New York Marine had issued a commercial general liability policy. Both covered “personal injury” including “libel.” Even though the policy limits are modest—$500,000 in liability for Travelers, $1 million for New York Marine—the key is that these insurers have a duty to defend Heard, which means they’ll also pick up additional costs for defense lawyers.

Travelers believed that Heard had a right to choose her own lawyers (and agreed to pay $290 per hour for partner work), but New York Marine—citing obscure Virginia law and believing this was a “fairly straight forward case” where local counsel would do just fine—didn’t. Instead, New York Marine sent its own (presumably cheaper) set of lawyers to Heard’s side and believed its obligations satisfied. A judge initially agreed.

Soon, however, the dispute between the two insurers entered into more explosive territory. Travelers doubted whether New York Marine’s appointed lawyers—Timothy McEvoy and Sean Patrick Roche—actually provided an “adequate defense” or merely “piggy-backed” on the work of Kaplan and Bredehoft. In turn, New York Marine alleged that Travelers had “unclean hands” because McEvoy and Roche, who expected at one point to act as lead attorneys for Heard, had been frozen out of participating in the case, including strategy discussions and court hearings. The insurer has collected communications as evidence, including an email from Roche in July 2020 stating, “We offered to help along the way but a kitchen can only handle so many cooks. Kaplan seemed to be operating with the approval of Amber, and a lawyer power struggle did not seem to benefit Amber.”

In November 2021, Heard cut ties with Kaplan, but the working atmosphere didn’t improve for McEvoy and Roche. So they withdrew too. Three months later, New York Marine made its one and only contribution to Travelers for Heard’s lawyers—$621,693, which represents half of three-months legal work (and demonstrates the astonishing burn rate in the Depp case). New York Marine is now demanding that money back. 

Most of the past and present lawyers on Heard’s team have been subpoenaed, and more than 100,000 documents have been collected in preparation for a possible trial between the insurers about the adequacy of Heard’s representation. All this figures to become a headache for Heard, who recently hired yet another lawyer, Kirk Pasich, to deal with this escalating insurance situation.

Meanwhile, the verdict in Depp v. Heard has created a whole new mess. In July, New York Marine filed a fresh lawsuit against the actress. The company is looking to escape contributing to the $10.35 million judgment under a California law that prevents an insurer from covering willful acts. (That’s ironic: Not only did the claims specialist at New York Marine once opine to a colleague that a jury verdict favoring Depp was “slim to nil,” but the insurer had previously relied on Virginia law—not California law—in insisting it needn’t fund Heard’s choice of counsel.) The media noticed this suit, although what reporters didn’t realize is that Travelers, not New York Marine, has been funding the bulk of Heard’s defense to date.

As for Travelers, as I mentioned, there’s a $500,000 cap for liability and although the insurer hasn’t yet sued Heard like its rival has, it initially advised Heard that it wouldn’t have any obligation to pay an award if Depp were to prove a knowingly false statement on her part. So if the judgment survives appeal, she’ll likely have to shoulder it herself.

A decision is coming soon on whether to consolidate these insurance matters. It’s expected among some insiders that Heard will seek a stay while the appeal plays out. In other words, she’ll be seeking to minimize this distraction. Nevertheless, there’s a reckoning that looms over what’s probably one of the most expensive libel cases in American history.