By Harriet Ryan
LOS ANGELES — A Los Angeles jury awarded casino mogul Steve Wynn $20 million Monday in his slander suit against “Girls Gone Wild” founder Joe Francis — a sum 10 times the gambling debt that sparked the dispute.
The L.A. County Superior Court jury found that Francis knowingly made false statements when he told reporters and others that Wynn threatened to kill him and bury his body in the desert over a $2 million bill he ran up during a multiday gambling spree in 2007.
“He told lies. He used the media to get it out there,” said Wynn’s lead lawyer, Barry Langberg, in lauding the verdict.
The award surpassed the $12 million Wynn’s attorneys had asked for and swelled Francis’ already substantial debt to the Las Vegas billionaire. With the original unpaid gambling bill and a $7.5 million defamation judgment awarded by a Nevada judge this year, Francis owes Wynn close to $30 million.
That amount is likely to grow this week. Because the jury found that Francis acted with malice, Wynn can seek additional punitive damages. His lawyers are to begin presenting evidence to the jury Tuesday morning. They declined to say how much they will request. Wynn has said that he will donate any money beyond his attorney fees to charity.
Wynn, 70, and Francis, 39, testified during the four-day trial, but were not in court when jurors delivered their verdict.
Their animosity dates to 2008, when Wynn officials sued Francis to collect the gambling debt. He accused them of employing hookers and deceptive practices to keep him gambling as his losses mounted. Wynn responded with a defamation suit in Las Vegas.
At a 2010 hearing in L.A. concerning the gambling debt, Francis remarked that Wynn was threatening his life in emails to Quincy Jones, the legendary music producer and an acquaintance of both men. He repeated that claim to TMZ. Wynn sued him again for defamation.
“Steve Wynn didn’t know who Joe Francis was, had never met him, until he started making these comments,” Langberg said after the verdict.
At the trial, Wynn said he didn’t use email and Jones denied relaying the threats or saying of Wynn, as Francis testified, “He’s gangster.”
“That sounds like a line from ‘Scarface,’” Jones testified.
Francis’ lawyers suggested that Jones might have misled him and said that Wynn suffered no real damage.
During the trial, Francis reiterated his claims on “Good Morning America.” Judge Joanne B. O’Donnell added the appearance to the slander claims the jury was considering and the panel awarded Wynn $11 million for the broadcast alone.
Francis told The Associated Press he planned to appeal.
“I’m startled by the jury’s verdict because it’s totally unfounded and the evidence does not support it,” he said.