LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Casino owner Steve Wynn was awarded $20 million in damages on Monday in his defamation suit against “Girls Gone Wild” creator Joe Francis, whom Wynn accused of slander for falsely claiming the Las Vegas mogul wanted him killed over a gambling debt.
A Los Angeles County Superior Court jury, which began its deliberations on Friday, also found that Francis acted with malice, setting the stage for a second trial phase - due to open on Tuesday - to determine whether Francis should also pay punitive damages.
The sum awarded so far was $8 million higher than the amount sought by Wynn’s lawyers and comes on top of a $7.5 million judgment the 70-year-old casino executive and his company won against Francis in a separate defamation case earlier this year.
The lawsuit decided on Monday accused Francis, 39, founder of a video series featuring college-age women exposing themselves for the camera, often during alcohol-soaked parties, of publicly stating on several occasions that Wynn wanted him killed with a shovel and buried in the desert.
Wynn said the slanderous statement was first uttered in April 2010 during a court hearing stemming from a $2 million gambling debt Francis allegedly ran up at one of Wynn’s casinos, and was repeated during a nationally televised broadcast of ABC’s “Good Morning America”.
Wynn has maintained the accusation by Francis was fabricated and posed a threat of undermining his business empire in a state like Nevada, where the gambling industry is tightly regulated.
The large size of the award demonstrated that the jurors “really understood that this was a vile, reprehensible character-assassination attempt,” said Mitchell Langberg, one of Wynn’s attorneys.
“Not only does his career depend on his reputation, but 12,000 employees at Wynn Las Vegas depend on his reputation,” Langberg said of his client.
The verdict in Wynn’s favor capped a week-long trial during which he and Francis both testified, as did music producer Quincy Jones.
Francis claimed threatening emails about him from Wynn were seen by others, including Jones. But Jones testified last week that he was unaware of any verbal or written threats by Wynn against Francis.
Neither Wynn nor Francis was in court for the verdict.
Wynn’s lawyers had asked the jury during closing arguments on Friday to award $12 million in compensatory damages for emotional distress and damage to Wynn’s reputation.
Francis’ lawyer, Aaron Aftergood, asserted that Wynn’s attorneys failed to present evidence that their client actually suffered any damage, arguing that the hotel-casino magnate was doing well in “global commerce.”
The verdict gave Wynn a third legal victory in his prolonged feud against the “Girls Gone Wild” entrepreneur that grew out of a $2 million debt Wynn claimed Francis had amassed during a multi-day gambling spree in 2007.
A criminal case filed against Francis over his gambling marker was dismissed. But a civil suit brought by the Wynn Las Vegas casino to recover the debt ended with a summary judgment against Francis for $2 million plus interest. The Nevada state Supreme Court upheld that award on appeal.
Earlier this year, a Nevada state judge ordered Francis to pay Wynn a $7.5 million judgment for a defamation suit in which Wynn accused Francis of fabricating claims that the casino mogul was cheating his high-end customers.
A fourth civil case brought by Francis accusing Wynn of maliciously reporting their dispute to the local prosecutor’s office is still pending in federal court in California.
Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Mohammad Zargham and Richard Chang