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Michael Jackson wrongful death trial opens: Were tour organizers to blame?

Michael Jackson died in part because the organizers of his 'This Is It' tour were irresponsible taskmasters, the family alleges in its wrongful death suit. But that might be hard to prove.

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Jackson’s side argues the e-mail is evidence that AEG Live used Murray's fear of losing his lucrative job as Jackson's personal physician to pressure him to have Jackson ready for rehearsals despite Jackson’s fragile health.

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AEG is expected to argue that Jackson struggled with addiction for years, that he chose Murray himself, and that it was his own drug addiction that led to his death. They will say that Murray – who had already been chosen by Jackson and paid by him for several years – was not an AEG employee.

The trial is likely to include detailed testimony about other doctors' treatment of Jackson, a subject that was largely off-limits in the earlier case.

The plaintiffs face an uphill battle as to the law, while AEG faces an uphill battle as to the jury, says Ian Wallach, a criminal defense and civil litigation attorney in Los Angeles.

Legally, AEG has a strong case because Jackson used other doctors, he had used Murray before, and was a grown man capable of making his own decisions, Mr. Wallach says.

“Practically speaking, however, it's tough to decide whose case is stronger. [AEG] can show that Jackson is an eccentric and controlling adult, not a helpless victim,” says Wallach. “And the company will introduce evidence of the child molestation cases – arguing that these cases stressed Jackson out, and so he ordered Murray to give him more drugs.”

Though the validity of the molestation cases isn't relevant to this trial, the mere mention of them could turn some jurors against Jackson, he says.

But the jury also has to consider the mother and children of a beloved pop star who died too early.  

“A jury will sympathize, [and] that weight is tremendous,” Wallach says. “The family will argue that [AEG] was so concerned about money that it didn't pay attention to warning signs, including an internal memo about Jackson's health. And this legal argument will allow the jury to see shady practices of tour promoters, potentially turning jurors against the defendants.”

The standard of proof – what the plaintiff has to show – is lower in a civil case like this than in a criminal case. In a criminal case, the prosecution has to establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, but a tort plaintiff merely has to show that a preponderance of the evidence is on his or her side.

The basic issue here is whether the entertainment company had a duty of care toward Jackson, and whether it controlled the selection of Murray and his treatment of Jackson, says Michael Moreland, vice dean of the Villanova School of Law in Philadelphia.

“There are certainly some bad facts in the case for AEG – like the fact they knew of Jackson’s declining condition,” he says. “But the law doesn’t generally expand liability to third parties in this way when they were not the direct cause of Jackson’s death, so this looks to me like a tough case for the plaintiffs here.”

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