By Eric Kelsey and Dana Feldman
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – A Los Angeles jury cleared concert promoter AEG Live of liability on Wednesday in a wrongful death lawsuit brought by the family of Michael Jackson, in a trial that offered a glimpse into the private life and final days of the so-called King of Pop.
The verdict, which concluded that the doctor the company hired to care for the singer was not unfit for his job, capped a sensational five-month trial that was expected to shake up the way entertainment companies treat their most risky talent.
“The jury’s decision completely vindicates AEG Live, confirming what we have known from the start – that although Michael Jackson’s death was a terrible tragedy, it was not a tragedy of AEG Live’s making,” defense attorney Marvin Putnam said in a statement following the verdict.
Putnam, who was heckled by Jackson supporters outside the courthouse, said after the trial that AEG Live had never considered settling the case out of court.
Still, the case sent shock waves through the music industry, with concert promoters as well as well-known entertainment insurers expected to beef up policies for acts they insure and potentially raise some prices.
Jackson’s 83-year-old mother, Katherine, and his three children sued AEG Live over the singer’s 2009 death at age 50 in Los Angeles from an overdose of the surgical anesthetic propofol.
The Jackson family claimed in its lawsuit that AEG Live, the concert division of privately held Anschutz Entertainment Group, negligently hired Conrad Murray as Jackson’s personal physician and ignored signs that the “Thriller” singer was in poor health prior to his death.
The family matriarch was in court for the verdict, which came on the fourth day of deliberations, and appeared to be emotional as it was read, lifting her glasses to wipe at her eyes. She smiled briefly as she left the courtroom.
MURRAY WAS ‘COMPETENT’
In explaining the verdict outside court, jury foreman Gregg Barden said jurors had concluded that Murray was competent for the job he was hired to do.
“We felt he was competent to do the job of general practitioner,” said Barden, who works for the Los Angeles Unified School District. “Now that doesn’t mean that we thought he was ethical, and maybe had the word ethical been in the question, it could have been a different outcome.”
Juror Kevin Smith, 61, who works for Los Angeles County Department of Public Works, added: “If AEG had known what was going on behind closed doors it would probably have made a world of difference, but they didn’t.”
Murray, who was caring for Jackson as the singer rehearsed for his series of 50 comeback “This Is It” concerts, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in 2011 for administering the propofol that killed the star. He is in a California prison and is expected to be released later this month.
Jackson family lawyer Kevin Boyle said outside court that attorneys and the family were “of course not happy” with Wednesday’s verdict.
“We will be exploring all options, legally and factually,” Boyle said.
Jackson fan Julia Thomas, who has been at the courthouse every day for the past five months, said she thought the jurors did not properly understand the second question on the verdict form, which asked if Murray was “unfit or incompetent to perform the work for which he was hired.”
“Most of us are shocked,” Thomas said. “It’s almost like a dream. I think the question went way over their heads. I think it was a trick question.”
FAMILY SOUGHT $1 BILLION IN DAMAGES
Jackson family lawyers had suggested in closing arguments that damages could exceed $1 billion if AEG Live was found liable. AEG Live had argued that it was Jackson who chose Murray as his physician and that it negotiated with the singer to pay Murray $150,000 per month, but only at Jackson’s request.
University of Southern California law professor Jody Armour said that the plaintiff’s argument that AEG Live disregarded Jackson’s health in their pursuit of profits did not persuade the jury.
“The jury decided the case on the notions of personal responsibility, and concluded that Michael Jackson had some responsibility in picking Murray and creating the circumstances surrounding his own death,” Armour said.
Several relatives of Jackson testified during the trial, including his mother, eldest son Prince and ex-wife Debbie Rowe.
Rowe, who was married to Jackson from 1996 to 1999, told the court that doctors had competed for Jackson’s business and took advantage of the singer’s fear of pain by giving him high-powered pain killers.
Rowe said she first grew concerned about Jackson’s prescription drug use in the early 1990s after he underwent surgery on his scalp and that she saw the singer use propofol to sleep as early as 1997.
PERSONAL LIVES, LEGAL HEADACHES
Following the case, there also may be some changes in store for the entertainment industry as concert promoters and producers move to insulate themselves legally from stars they work with.
“The thing that is really going to change is the boiler-plate and liability waivers in contracts,” said Gary Bongiovanni, editor of concert industry trade magazine Pollstar. “When contracts are written, they’re going to be a little more clear.”
Jay Gendron, a professor at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles and former legal affairs executive with Warner Bros film studio, said employers must draw a line in the sand with stars whose personal lives may later become legal headaches.
“At a certain point you just have to say, ‘No,’ because the risk is too high,” Gendron said. “You have to look at your business template and ask, ‘Is this something we’re willing to risk?'”
Although AEG Live came out a legal victor, the trial did give the company a black eye, said Rich Tullo, the director of research at Albert Fried and Co who follows AEG Live’s main competitor, Live Nation Entertainment Inc.
“I really kind of think this (trial) in the long-term benefits Live Nation with the artists,” Tullo said.
“This is a people business and this is a bad people thing. Even if this is the doctor Michael Jackson wanted them to hire. … Just from the optics of it, it looks awful,” Tullo added.
“Where it could benefit Live Nation is in a 5 to 10 percent market share increase,” he said.