Billionaire Sumner Redstone unable to make decisions, says lawsuit by ex-girlfriend
A bitter battle to control the fortune of ailing billionaire Sumner Redstone escalated Wednesday when the media mogul’s ex-girlfriend filed a lawsuit alleging that he is mentally impaired and unable to make decisions.
The lawsuit raises important questions about whether the 92-year-old Redstone is capable of overseeing the affairs of the two media companies that he controls, Viacom Inc. and CBS Corp., and whether he should be ejected from the top of his multibillion-dollar empire.
The lawsuit, filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court by Redstone’s former girlfriend, 51-year-old Manuela Herzer, paints a stark picture of the deteriorating health of the once mighty corporate chief.
Court documents describe Redstone as mentally vacant, unable to speak intelligibly or eat on his own, and prone to uncontrollable crying spells.
“He requires around-the-clock nursing care and his home has become a defacto intensive care unit,” according to one of the legal documents.
A Viacom spokesman declined to comment.
“This litigation is a farce,” said Redstone’s attorney, Gabrielle A. Vidal.
“Ms. Herzer’s claim that she filed this lawsuit out of concern for Mr. Redstone is preposterous,” Vidal said in a statement. “It is a meritless action, riddled with lies, and a despicable invasion of his privacy. It proves only that Ms. Herzer will stop at nothing to pursue her personal financial agenda.”
Redstone is worth $5.5 billion, according to a recent estimate by Forbes. Much of his holdings are tied up in Viacom and CBS stock.
Until last summer, Redstone had entrusted his day-to-day care to Herzer and another girlfriend, whom he lavished with homes, diamond rings and other gifts worth millions of dollars. But the women were banished from Redstone’s life in recent months after they posed last spring for a splashy Vanity Fair photo spread that celebrated their status as his girlfriends.
On Wednesday, Herzer filed the probate lawsuit and asked a judge to rule that Redstone does not have the mental capacity to make decisions about his care. One of those decisions was having Herzer removed on Oct. 12 from her role as Redstone’s primary caretaker.
The suit demands that Redstone receive a mental examination, including a brain scan, and submit to a video-taped deposition.
Until last month, Herzer was in charge of Redstone’s advance healthcare directive and made decisions on the mogul’s behalf. But on Oct. 12, another Redstone attorney asked Herzer to leave Redstone’s house. A few days later, Herzer was told she was no longer serving in any legal capacity for Redstone.
Viacom Chief Executive Philippe Dauman then became the person in charge of Redstone’s advance healthcare directive, the Redstone legal response said.
Should Redstone become incapacitated, Dauman would make decisions.
Attorneys for Redstone accused Herzer of going to great lengths to try to avoid being cut out of Redstone’s will -- even threatening to invite the tabloid TV show TMZ into Redstone’s mansion in Beverly Park above Beverly Hills.
“This application is all about Ms. Herzer’s personal financial agenda,” Vidal wrote in the Redstone legal response. “Mr. Redstone kicked Ms. Herzer out of his house on Oct. 12, and since then Ms. Herzer has been on a warpath.”
The motive, Vidal said, is purely financial -- not concern about Redstone or his failing health.
“She suspected that in the days or weeks following her removal from his home, Mr. Redstone would take action to amend his estate plan,” Vidal wrote. “Whatever benefit might have previously accrued to her would be eliminated.”
Herzer’s attorney, Pierce O’Donnell, shot back that his client was genuinely worried about her longtime companion.
“Our only ‘agenda’ is to ensure that Sumner’s health care decisions are made by Manuela, his dear friend of 16 years to whom he entrusted his health care,” O’Donnell said in a statement provided to The Times.
“Sumner, with all his faculties, would never have condoned such vitriol against his long-time confidante as she fights to fulfill her duty as the guardian of his health,” O’Donnell said. “The only ‘farce’ here is the orchestrated attempt to cover up the truth: Tragically, Sumner Redstone can no longer make competent decisions about his health care and his health care agents.”
The case may have ramifications for Viacom, which owns Paramount Pictures film studio in Los Angeles and the cable TV channels MTV, Nickelodeon, Comedy Central, VH1 and BET.
Redstone’s other company, CBS, includes the nation’s most-watched TV network, a chain of popular radio and TV stations, including KCBS-TV Channel 2 in Los Angeles, and premium channel Showtime.
Redstone and his family control 79% of the voting shares of the two companies.
Charles Elson, director of the John L. Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance at the University of Delaware, said that raising questions about the health of a company chairman is significant.
“Anytime someone’s capacity’s is questioned, in open court, at that point the [company] board is certainly on notice that they should consider the issue,” Elson said. “If you have a judicial finding, the board at that point would have to react.”
Redstone’s interest in the two media companies is governed by an irrevocable trust. When he dies or is no longer able to oversee his affairs, a group of trustees will assume decision-making control over his interest in the two companies.
The lawsuit filed Wednesday does not challenge the authority of the trust -- or control of the two media companies.
Instead, Herzer has asked a judge to determine that Redstone was not mentally competent last month when Herzer was removed from Redstone’s home. Such a finding would return Herzer to a guardian role of overseeing Redstone’s care.
A brief preliminary hearing on the matter was held Wednesday morning, and a judge set a scheduling conference between the two sides for Monday.
Herzer’s suit details the deteriorating health of Redstone, including color photos of the billionaire that indicate his once reddish hair has faded to white.
“He stared vacantly at times, not appearing to be in the moment, and was mostly listless,” according to a declaration by Herzer’s brother, Carlos Herzer. “He was given to random crying spells that had no discernable cause.”
Manuela Herzer’s legal filings included a declaration from a woman who said she had dated Redstone years ago and had been recently asked by Herzer to come to Redstone’s mansion. The woman, Heidi MacKinney, said such visits ended last month.
“My final two visits were especially troubling,” MacKinney said in the declaration. “In my second-to-the last visit, around Oct. 3, 2015, I tried to talk to Sumner, but he was completely non-responsive. ... I decided not to return or offer to be sexually intimate with him again.”
She returned once more, on Oct. 10, she said. “This time he appeared even more disoriented, distant, and non-communicative. I cut the visit short and left after spending only 20 minutes with Sumner,” MacKinney said.
Herzer said she has known Redstone for 16 years and that Redstone asked her to marry him after he was divorced from his first wife. Herzer said she said no. She described herself as a longtime family friend; her teenage daughter, Kathrine Herzer, appears in a supporting role in a popular CBS drama, “Madam Secretary.”
Herzer said Redstone’s health began to decline in the summer of 2014 and that was hospitalized several times. At that point, Herzer said, a feeding tube was installed to allow Redstone to receive nourishment.
His health became progressively worse this year, she said. His situation took a bad turn this fall after Redstone ordered the other girlfriend, 44-year-old Sydney Holland, out of his home when he learned that Holland was involved with another man, according to the lawsuit.
Herzer said she then became Redstone’s primary caretaker for several months, until her eviction Oct. 12.
In her declaration, Herzer said: “I am convinced that if Sumner indeed signed anything himself on that day, he lacked the mental capacity to understand what he was signing.”
O’Donnell and Bert Fields of the Greenberg, Glusker law firm are handling Herzer’s lawsuit. Redstone’s lawyers are Vidal and Leah Bishop of Loeb & Loeb.
Staff writer Ryan Faughnder contributed to this report.
From the Oscars to the Emmys.
Get the Envelope newsletter for exclusive awards season coverage, behind-the-scenes stories from the Envelope podcast and columnist Glenn Whipp’s must-read analysis.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.