Published Monday, Sept. 10, 2012 | 12:05 p.m.
Updated Monday, Sept. 10, 2012 | 2:44 p.m.
A jury on Monday awarded casino mogul Steve Wynn $20 million in his slander case against "Girls Gone Wild" founder Joe Francis, who claimed the creator of some of Las Vegas' most upscale resorts threatened to kill him over a gambling debt.
Witnesses disputed Francis' claims during a four-day trial, including Grammy winning record producer Quincy Jones, who Francis said told him about Wynn's threats and showed him a stack of emails that contained them.
Wynn vehemently denied that.
In siding with Wynn, the jury determined that there was clear and convincing evidence that Francis slandered the casino mogul and knew his allegations were false when he made them. Francis had claimed Wynn threatened to hit him over the head with a shovel and have him buried in the desert.
Neither Wynn nor Francis was present in court Monday morning when the verdict was read.
Wynn's attorney on Friday had asked the panel to award the billionaire $12 million plus punitive damages to send a message that false statements that travel far in the Internet age will not be tolerated. A second phase of the trial to decide punitive damages will begin on Tuesday.
Wynn's attorney, Barry Langberg, said after the verdict was read that the jury clearly saw the harm in Francis' remarks.
"The evidence was clear that there was falsity and there was damage," Langberg said.
Francis said he expects the verdict to be overturned on appeal due to judicial error.
"I'm startled by the jury's verdict because it's totally unfounded and the evidence does not support it," Francis said in a phone interview.
He said the judge erred by allowing Wynn's attorneys to allow jurors to consider a new claim of slander based on an interview Francis did with "Good Morning America" after the trial started. The panel awarded Wynn $11 million in damages on that claim alone.
"California law is very clear. You can't add a cause of action at the end of trial about something that had nothing to do with the trial," Francis said. "Therefore we are 100 percent confident this jury verdict will be reversed on appeal."
The CEO of Wynn resorts and designer of signature Las Vegas casinos such as the Mirage, Bellagio, Wynn and Encore attended the trial. Wynn said after arguments concluded on Friday that he would donate any winnings, minus his attorney's fees, to charities.
Francis, who testified, has built a business empire based on videos of young women flashing their breasts for video cameras. His attorney argued that both men may be telling the truth and that Francis may have been misled by Jones. Francis claims he heard about the threats from the Grammy-winner, who is his neighbor, but Jones denies hearing Wynn utter any threats.
Langberg accused Francis of lying about the threats, pointing out that there was no evidence of any email Wynn had sent and multiple witnesses corroborating the casino mogul's story. He argued that Francis was malicious because he repeated the threats in the "Good Morning America" interview.
Francis had previously said at a court hearing that Wynn threatened him over a $2 million gambling debt Francis incurred at Wynn's hotel. Celebrity news website TMZ reported on the hearing and Francis confirmed his allegations to a reporter from the site afterward.
"He committed character assassination," Langberg said. "He did it for a simple reason — he didn't want to pay his debt."
"I made a statement in a courtroom seeking a restraining order against Steve Wynn, which is 100 percent privileged," Francis said. "I was afraid for my life and I only made that statement when I was ordered by a judge to do so."
Superior Court Judge Joanne O'Donnell ruled that Francis' attorney could not argue that the statement was protected because it was made in a courtroom, since it was made during a proceeding over the debt and there were no indications Francis sought a restraining order.