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Jury says Joe Francis owes casino giant Steve Wynn $40 million

Jury adds $20 million in punitive damages to an earlier $20-million award in a slander suit against Joe Francis of 'Girls Gone Wild' over an alleged death threat.

September 12, 2012|By Ashley Powers, Los Angeles Times
  • Joe Francis (left) and Steve Wynn (right)
Joe Francis (left) and Steve Wynn (right) (Associated Press file photos )

In 2010, "Girls Gone Wild" founder Joe Francis first accused casino mogul Steve Wynn of threatening to kill him and bury him in the desert.

That accusation, which Francis repeated publicly at least twice more, could end up costing him $40 million.

A Los Angeles jury this week awarded Wynn that amount in his slander suit against Francis, an outcome Wynn lauded as a strike against an "unbelievably reckless human being."

"Thank God for the justice system that finally sent a message: If you think you're taking a cheap shot, it may be a lot more expensive than you had imagined," Wynn said Tuesday in a statement.

Francis attorney Aaron Aftergood said he planned to ask for a new trial on the grounds that jurors were allowed to penalize Francis for discussing the accusation on "Good Morning America," an interview the panel never saw.

"I still maintain that my life was endangered and I plan on appealing this verdict," Francis said on his website. "One day the public will see that I am the real victim here and not Steve Wynn."

The jury of nine men and three women awarded Wynn $20 million Monday, finding Francis knowingly made false statements about the death threats to TMZ and others. Wynn testified that the "terrible lie" could harm his reputation and that of his eponymous casino empire and potentially trigger an investigation by Nevada gaming regulators.

Francis said he'd heard about the threats from Quincy Jones, the Grammy-winning producer and a friend of both men. But Jones testified during the four-day trial that Wynn never told him he wanted Francis dead.

Because the jury found Francis acted with malice, Wynn was allowed to seek punitive damages. That phase of the trial took place Tuesday. Wynn attorney Barry Langberg urged jurors to "send a message" not only to Francis, but to anyone who's disparaged someone online.

"It tells the world and Mr. Francis, 'You can't do this,' " Langberg said.

Aftergood told jurors that Wynn was never able to show how he or his company had been financially harmed.

Within hours, jurors awarded Wynn what his attorneys had asked for: an additional $20 million. Wynn has vowed to donate to charity any money beyond his attorney fees.

The Wynn-Francis feud stretches over several years and multiple lawsuits. It began in 2008, when Wynn officials sued Francis to collect a $2-million gambling debt. Wynn also won $7.5 million in a defamation suit against Francis, who'd claimed the casino used deceptive practices to keep him betting.

Francis first blurted out the death threat allegation during a hearing related to the gambling debt.

ashley.powers@latimes.com

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