Michael Jackson family’s civil suit blames AEG in singer’s death


LOS ANGELES — With the conviction this week of
Michael Jackson’s doctor on an involuntary manslaughter charge, the
question of blame in the pop star’s death shifts to a new and much
wealthier defendant: Los Angeles entertainment behemoth Anschutz
Entertainment Group.

The conclusion of the
criminal case sets the stage for proceedings in civil court, where the
pop star’s mother and children are pressing a wrongful death suit
against the corporation and its concert subsidiary, AEG Live, the
promoter of Jackson’s doomed comeback attempt.

civil case, set for trial in September, pits the singer’s three
children and elderly mother against one of the city’s most important
companies at a time when AEG is pitching controversial plans for a
downtown football stadium.

The case involves many
of the same issues as the criminal trial: propofol, Jackson’s
performance anxiety and the medical choices of Dr. Conrad Murray.

the proceedings are expected to delve into areas the criminal judge
barred as irrelevant to Murray’s role, including Jackson’s finances and
years of drug problems.

“The conviction of Dr.
Murray is just the beginning of bringing forth the truth on what
happened to Michael Jackson,” said Brian Panish, an attorney for the
Jackson family. “Forces much larger than Dr. Murray were involved in
this tragedy.”

Lawyers for the Jacksons, who are
seeking an unspecified amount of money, have portrayed AEG in court
papers as a heartless, bottom-line-driven business that contributed to
the singer’s death by pressuring him to prepare for performances he
wasn’t physically capable of pulling off. That pressure, they have
written, pushed him toward Murray and the nightly use of propofol, a
surgical anesthetic, for his insomnia.

“AEG said
that if they called off the Tour, there would be lawsuits and Jackson’s
career would be over. They said Jackson must work with Murray,” the
Jacksons’ lawyers wrote in a complaint last year.

AEG has denied the allegations in court filings, with its lawyers saying the company “in no way actually controlled” the singer.

Jackson was not helpless or incompetent; he lived in his own home,
negotiated his own contracts, engaged his own attorneys, and cared for
his own family,” lawyers for the company wrote. “He at all times
retained the option of refusing Dr. Murray’s services, or of canceling
his agreement with AEG.”

The company’s concern
with the civil matter was on display at Murray’s trial. The lead
attorney for AEG in the wrongful death suit, Marvin Putnam, sat in the
well of the court facing the witness box as three company officials

Each of them told jurors that the
company had no indication that Murray was anything but a competent
physician, with his famous patient’s best interests at heart.

Murray told me repeatedly that Michael Jackson was perfectly healthy,
in excellent condition,” said Kathy Jorrie, a lawyer who helped draft
Murray’s $150,000-a-month contract.

Murray is not
named in the suit filed by Katherine Jackson and her grandchildren,
although he is named in a separate claim by the singer’s father.

lawyer for Katherine Jackson and her grandchildren said the choice not
to sue the doctor reflected the family’s belief that AEG bore primary

“We believe the evidence shows that there is much more involvement from AEG, and that Murray’s a minor player,” Panish said.

Other legal experts saw a different calculus.

got no money,” said Loyola Law School professor Stan Goldman of the
heavily indebted physician. It was smart strategy, he said, to keep
Murray away from civil jurors: “Keep the focus on the deep pockets.”

was AEG Live’s substantial resources that made the deal attractive to
the financially troubled Jackson in the first place, and it is the
dynamic between the rich company and the cash-strapped performer that is
at the heart of the suit. The company advanced Jackson money against
future concert earnings to cover every aspect of his life and had the
right to seize his assets if he failed to perform at 50 London shows.

court papers, Katherine Jackson’s lawyers have said the relationship
created a legal duty on the part of AEG “to treat him safely and to not
put him in harm’s way.” They said AEG breached those duties by
contracting with Murray, who they allege went along with their only
interest: ensuring that Jackson could perform.

the criminal trial, AEG officials testified that Murray was Jackson’s
choice and that they had wanted to hire a British doctor.

was very firm. He said no, I need my own physician and I need him
24-seven,” said Randy Phillips, chief executive of AEG Live.

worked for Jackson for two months but was never paid by AEG because the
singer hadn’t yet signed the contract, a point that Jorrie, the
contract lawyer, noted several times in her testimony.

The civil case is expected to yield far more details about Jackson’s problems than the criminal trial did.

in civil court, the range of issues to be decided is far broader than
they ever are in a criminal case; and that means a lot more evidence
comes in,” said David M. Ring, a Los Angeles lawyer who has sued on
behalf of plaintiffs in wrongful death cases. “Instead of just looking
in the closet, you are looking in the whole house.”

Jackson’s lawyer said he expected that civil jurors would learn vastly
more about the singer’s relationship with AEG than their criminal-case
counterparts did. The case file already includes a copy of Jackson’s
contract with the promoter, a document kept out of the manslaughter
case. Details about Jackson’s long-standing financial problems — another
subject prohibited in criminal court — would be central to the case
against AEG.

Putnam and AEG declined to comment.
To defend itself, the company could present unflattering information
about Jackson’s substance abuse, his seeking of propofol from various
physicians dating to the 1990s and his often rocky relationship with his
family. None of those topics were allowed at the criminal trial.

the suit is still in its early stages, both sides have claimed some
victories. Earlier this year, a judge threw out some portions of the
Jacksons’ suit, including allegations of fraud and negligent infliction
of emotional distress on the singer’s children. Superior Court Judge
Yvette M. Palazuelos ruled that the remainder of the claims — including
breach of contract and negligence in hiring Murray — could go forward on
the theory that Jackson “was particularly vulnerable and dependent” on


©2011 the Los Angeles Times

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