LOS ANGELES — Film remakes of "The Grapes of Wrath" and "East of Eden" fell apart because John Steinbeck's son and daughter-in-law impeded the projects, the writer's stepdaughter told jurors in federal court Tuesday.
Waverly Scott Kaffaga alleges that long-running litigation over the author's estate has prevented her from making the most of Steinbeck's copyrights at a time when marquee names such as Steven Spielberg and Jennifer Lawrence were interested in bringing some his masterpieces back to the screen.
"The catalog has been dirtied by these legalities," Kaffaga said. "The whole Steinbeck canon has been put into doubt."
Kaffaga, daughter of the late author's third wife, Elaine, is suing the estate of stepbrother Thomas Steinbeck, who died last year, and his widow and their company.
The lawsuit follows a decades-long dispute between Thomas Steinbeck and Kaffaga's mother over control of the author's works.
Thomas Steinbeck has lost most rounds in court, including a lawsuit he and the daughter of his late brother, John Steinbeck IV, brought that spurred Kaffaga to countersue in the current case.
A judge already ruled the couple breached a contract with Kaffaga. Jurors must decide if Thomas and Gail Steinbeck interfered with deals and should pay up.
Attorneys for Kaffaga did not name a price in court, but Gail Steinbeck said they previously asked the judge for $6.5 million plus punitive damages.
Gail Steinbeck's lawyer said she never intentionally interfered in deals she and her husband would have benefited from and that would have served their interest promoting the Nobel Prize winner's legacy.
An attorney for Kaffaga said Gail Steinbeck caught wind of projects and then threatened movie makers that she and her husband had legal rights to the work and also cut secret side deals without notifying Kaffaga.
In one instance, Thomas Steinbeck secretly signed a $650,000 deal with DreamWorks to be an executive producer on a film remake of "The Grapes of Wrath," the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that starred Henry Fonda on the silver screen that won two Oscars.
Producers and directors later dropped the remakes because they feared litigation by the Steinbecks, Kaffaga's attorney Susan Kohlmann said in her opening statement.
Kohlmann put Gail Steinbeck on the witness stand early in the case and displayed emails that she wrote suggesting that a reported remake of "East of Eden" starring Lawrence would be "litigation city."
Another email Gail Steinbeck wrote after her husband lost a related court case in New York suggested litigation wouldn't end until "I draw my last breath."
Steinbeck laughed off that comment in testimony, saying, "Oh, that was silly."
Defense attorney Matthew Berger noted that Kaffaga was never adopted by John Steinbeck and was not one of his heirs. He said Thomas Steinbeck was a co-owner of his father's copyright and received royalties.
Gail Steinbeck estimated conservatively that her husband received $120,000 a year in publishing royalties from the author's work — and as much as $200,000 in some years.
Berger said Kaffaga's claim had no merit and she wasn't entitled to any damages because most movies optioned are never made and that estimated revenue from unproduced projects was speculation.
Berger suggested Kaffaga was using Thomas' inheritance to sue his widow.