By Steve Gorman
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - U.S. casino owner Steve Wynn won $20 million in punitive damages for defamation on Tuesday, doubling his total judgment in a lawsuit accusing "Girls Gone Wild" creator Joe Francis of slandering him by falsely claiming that Wynn had threatened his life over a gambling debt.
A Los Angeles County Superior Court jury deliberated for about two hours before reaching its decision in the second phase of a defamation trial that capped a protracted, high-stakes legal feud between the two men.
On Monday, following a week-long trial that included testimony from legendary music producer Quincy Jones, the same jury awarded Wynn $20 million in damages for infliction of emotional distress and injury to his reputation.
The jurors also found that Francis had acted with malice, opening the door to additional damages intended as punishment. The $20 million punitive sum was decided after a subsequent round of testimony and arguments presented on Tuesday.
"There have been bigger defamation awards (but) I don't know that there have been many," Mitchell Langberg, one of Wynn's lawyers, said of the $40 million total.
Although both men took the witness stand last week, neither was present in court for this week's verdicts.
In reaction to Tuesday's judgment, Francis posted a message on his website saying he was "incredibly disappointed the jury grossly misinterpreted the facts."
"I still maintain my life was endangered and I plan on appealing this verdict," he said.
Wynn's victory comes on top of a $7.5 million judgment the 70-year-old Las Vegas mogul won against Francis, 39, in a separate defamation case earlier this year. Wynn's company, Wynn Resorts, was awarded more than $2 million in a 2008 lawsuit brought to collect money he claimed that Francis owed his casino.
The lawsuit decided on Monday accused Francis, 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 the disputed gambling debt, 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.
Francis claimed threatening emails about him from Wynn were seen by others, including Jones, an acquaintance of both men. But the music producer testified last week that he was unaware of any verbal or written threats by Wynn against Francis.
Francis and his lawyers also have asserted that Wynn's attorneys failed to present any evidence that the billionaire hotel-casino magnate suffered any damage to his business.
The outcome gave Wynn a third legal victory in a prolonged dispute with the "Girls Gone Wild" entrepreneur that grew out of the 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.
(Reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Lisa Shumaker)