By Steve Gorman
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.
The Los Angeles County Superior Court jury, which began its deliberations on Friday, also found that Francis acted with malice. The verdict set the stage for a second phase of the trial - due to open on Tuesday - to determine whether punitive damages should be ordered.
The lawsuit accused Francis, founder of the 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 ABC News broadcast.
Wynn maintained the accusation by Francis was fabricated and threatened to undermine his business empire in a state like Nevada, where the gambling industry is tightly regulated.
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.
Wynn's lawyer, Barry Langberg, had asked the jury during closing arguments on Friday to award $12 million in compensatory damages to his client for emotional distress and damage to his 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."
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Mohammad Zargham)
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