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.

Bill Robles/Reuters
Katherine Jackson (l.), mother of late pop star Michael Jackson, and her daughter Rebbie Jackson are pictured in a courtroom sketch at Katherine Jackson's civil suit against concert promoter AEG Live in Los Angeles Monday.

The Michael Jackson wrongful death trial – which has begun with opening arguments Monday in a small Los Angeles courtroom – pits the family of one of the world’s richest and most beloved pop stars against one of the world’s largest entertainment companies.

Because of the nature of the case, it could bring out more detail than the previous trial connected to Mr. Jackson's death, in which Conrad Murray was convicted of involuntary manslaughter. He is currently serving a four-year sentence. Moreover, the trial could be more broad-ranging in touching on how Jackson reacted to child-molestation charges against him, his drug use, and his finances.

Unlike Dr. Murray's trial, however, which was broadcast live in the United States, the civil case will play out without cameras in a courtroom with only 45 public seats.

The trial could last months and promises a long list of celebrities including Diana Ross, Quincy Jones, Spike Lee, and Prince. Both of Jackson's ex-wives, Lisa Marie Presley and Debbie Rowe, are also listed as potential witnesses.

The case will center on the Jacksons' claim that AEG Live played a role in Jackson's 2009 death by irresponsibly pushing him and Murray to make sure the singer would be ready for his 50-show "This Is It" tour, which was scheduled to begin in London later that year.

A key part of the case, in which Jackson's mother, Katherine, is the plaintiff, is an e-mail from AEG Live co-chief executive officer Paul Gongaware written 11 days before Jackson's death. It is addressed to show director Kenny Ortega and expresses concern that Murray had kept Jackson from a rehearsal the day before, according to a CNN report. "We want to remind (Murray) that it is AEG, not MJ, who is paying his salary. We want to remind him what is expected of him."

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.

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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