Trials & Litigation

Jury mulls Michael Jackson case, as lawyer for family complains of defense counsel 'smugness'

Updated: After months at trial, a California jury is now in the initial stages of considering a potential blockbuster wrongful death case over the demise of pop superstar Michael Jackson.

The six-man, six-woman panel spent two hours in deliberation Thursday and another five hours Friday, and will resume their consideration of the Los Angeles County Superior Court case Tuesday, the Associated Press reports.

At issue is whether concert promoter AEG Live LLC was negligent in hiring or supervising Dr. Conrad Murray, a personal physician for Jackson who was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the singer’s 2009 death. It was linked to the use of the intravenous anesthetic propofol, which Jackson used as a sleep aid at home although the drug is ordinarily administered in a hospital setting.

Producers sometimes make substantial advance payments to entertainers, in exchange for control over aspects of the stars’ lives that will help encourage them to meet contractual obligations, explains Reuters. Now the wrongful death suit is making observers in the entertainment industry wonder how much liability could potentially result from doing so.

“The industry is watching and waiting and seeing very much how this plays out,” said law professor Jody Armour of the University of Southern California.

Jackson’s survivors, who are seeking at least $1 billion, contend in their suit that “AEG came to control much of Jackson’s life. The home Jackson lived in was provided by AEG; his finances were dependent on AEG, and his assets stood security if he failed to perform.”

So far, the jury has asked to see the contract AEG Live drafted (only Murray signed) for his services and the documentary This Is It, which shows Jackson in rehearsal for the world comeback tour that never occurred because of his death.

Partner Marvin Putnam of O’Melveny & Myers represents the concert promoter. He pointed the finger at Jackson in closing arguments for, he said, insisting on hiring Murray over AEG Live’s objections. The singer and his physician then concealed from the company critical information about his health, Putnam contended, pointing to brief excerpts from the documentary as proof that Jackson seemed fine to those who saw him, the Associated Press recounts.

“AEG would have never agreed to finance this tour if they knew Mr. Jackson was playing Russian roulette in his bedroom every night,” Putnam told jurors, referring to the singer’s use of propofol.

However, Brian Panish, arguing for the plaintiffs—Jackson’s mother and his three children—portrayed AEG Live as “a money-making machine” whose executives and counsel cared nothing about Jackson and referred to him in an email as “the freak,” according to the AP and CNN.

But for Murray’s failure as a physician, Panish said, Jackson would still be alive. And, while the singer bore a portion of the responsibility for hiring Murray—20 percent, the attorney suggested—the majority of the blame should be borne by AEG Live. Thus, Panish asked the jury to award $1 billion to $2 billion in the case, which looks to the value of Jackson’s future earnings had his career not been cut short by his death.

“How dare they come up here and accept no responsibility and blame it all on Michael,” Panish said in his rebuttal.

Throughout the trial, lawyers for both sides have been unusually contentious with each other, perhaps reflecting something of a culture clash between O’Melveny, an 800-attorney corporate powerhouse with 16 offices worldwide, and small firm Panish, Shea and Boyle. The 15-attorney plaintiffs’ firm with one office has won 20 verdicts of $10 million or more including a record $4.9 billion (reduced by a judge to $1.2 billion) against General Motors.

Panish attributes the animosity to personal dislike on the part of Putnam, the Los Angeles Times (sub. req.) reports.

His partner, Kevin Boyle, says O’Melveny went out of its way to make the case difficult, even refusing to stipulate that Jackson is dead until after the trial began. Asked by the Times whether the law firm looked down on them, Boyle said: “They certainly act that way. It seems a very coordinated effort of smugness.”

Putnam declined the newspaper’s request for comment.

See also: “Big-bucks jury question: Did concert promoter select or supervise Michael Jackson’s personal doctor?” “Candy issue at Michael Jackson trial is resolved” “Wrongful-death defendant’s lawyer called Michael Jackson ‘the freak’ in email shown to jurors” “Latest issue in big-bucks Michael Jackson death case: Did one lawyer give another the finger?”

Updated on Oct. 1 to include Reuters coverage.

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