The news came out late yesterday that the family of Michael Jackson lost their billion-dollar wrongful death case against the concert promoter that was managing Jackson’s upcoming world tour. Jackson’s family contended that the promoter, AEG Live, was negligent in hiring the doctor who administered the fatal drugs to Jackson, while the defense put forth that AEG was not negligent in the death of Jackson. The jury in the 5-month long trial agreed with the defense, that the promoter was not negligent in hiring the doctor who administered the lethal dose of tranquilizers to Jackson, and they were absolutely right.
The Jackson family failed because they did not have a case. As expertly pointed out by defense counsel, "Plaintiffs want you to hold a concert promoter liable for Michael Jackson’s overdose, in his bedroom, at night, behind locked doors.” Jackson, though presenting an image as a young and irresponsible boy, was in fact a 50-year-old man responsible for his own health. Jackson had a history of "shopping" for doctors who would prescribe him the medication he wanted. Jackson found such a doctor, whom he offered to pay $150,000 a month to provide prescription medication, a doctor who is now in prison. Jackson and his doctor were responsible for Jackson’s death, not his concert promoter.
Those of us who try wrongful death cases, especially those who ask juries to award damages into the millions, were served a powerful lesson in the claim by Michael Jackson’s family against AEG Live: you shouldn’t try to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. And when you do, you not only risk losing the case, but you damage the ability of good wrongful death attorneys handling valid claims for clients who have suffered real losses caused by negligent parties.
Michael Jackson’s family contended that the concert promoter, AEG Live, hired Dr. Conrad Murray, that Dr. Murray was incompetent to perform the duties he was hired to do, and the resulting death of Jackson was in part due to AEG Live’s negligence. Dr. Murray is currently serving four years in prison from his conviction of involuntary manslaughter in the prior criminal case.
While the plaintiff attorneys representing the Jackson family acknowledged that both Dr. Murray and Michael Jackson himself were partly responsible for Jackson’s death, they accused AEG of not performing due diligence in checking Dr. Murray’s background, and that AEG should have supervised Murray more closely, and that AEG missed warning signs of Jackson’s drug use.
The defense attorneys contended that AEG Live had no way to know what Michael Jackson’s medical treatment entailed behind closed doors, and that if they had known Dr. Murray was administering Propofol, the high-powered tranquilizer Jackson was using to overcome his long-term insomnia, AEG would have pulled the plug on the upcoming tour.
The jury agreed with the defense and unanimously determined that the company is not negligent in the death of the pop star, and will not have to pay damages to Jackson's family.
Unfortunately, baseless claims which try to shift the blame from an irresponsible adult to a defendant chosen only because of its available insurance (particularly baseless claims by families of celebrities which gain extensive media coverage) make it more difficult to prevail in valid claims brought by families who have suffered losses caused by truly irresponsible parties, such as drunk drivers, texting drivers, and manufacturers of defective equipment.
Due to the typical arrangement whereby wrongful death cases are handled on a contingency basis, Jackson’s family will end up paying nothing in legal fees for the work of their attorneys during the months-long trial. However, AEG Live will be forced to pay millions of dollars for their defense team that prevailed against this baseless claim. The unfortunate reality is that the Jackson family legal team took a big chance on this case, they lost big, and their loss cost the defendant a huge sum of money. Certainly not a fair scenario, but one that defendants in these types of claims are forced into.
Concert promoters don’t kill drug abusers, drug abusers kill themselves. And while Michael Jackson’s death was certainly tragic, his family’s attempt to gain financially by suing an innocent third party was irresponsible, and damaging to the practice of wrongful death law.