Lawyers in Michael Jackson wrongful-death suit can’t mask animosity
Brian Panish was indignant as the two men argued in the judge’s chambers.
“Judge,” the Michael Jackson family attorney snapped, “if I want to give him the finger, I know how to give him the finger.”
“And you did it quite well twice,” replied Marvin Putnam, an attorney for entertainment giant AEG.
Panish denied doing any such thing but added, “If he wants me to give him the finger, I’m happy to do that.”
The trial over whether a division of one of America’s most powerful entertainment conglomerates is liable in the death of a legendary pop star has been filled with testimony about Jackson’s drug use, his physical and mental deterioration and his growing fears as a comeback tour approached.
But the other drama may well be the bruising war of words between the two lead attorneys, one an Ivy League product who worked in France and the other a Fresno State grad who attended school on a football scholarship.
The two lawyers have snipped, argued, shouted, rolled their eyes, bumped shoulders in the courtroom doorway and once got into such a combative argument in the hallway that the court clerk stepped into the corridor to tell them to cool it; an order they promptly ignored.
For more than four months, the lawyers have taken daily shots at each other as jurors and spectators looked on, often in amusement, a sideshow that can be as riveting as some of the testimony.
The day after the argument in the corridor, L.A. County Superior Court Judge Yvette Palazuelos called the two attorneys into her chambers again and told them they would be sanctioned if their behavior didn’t improve. Putnam called Panish “despicable” and refused to shake his hand. “Where I’m from,” he said, “handshakes mean something.”
With closing arguments in the long-running trial expected to start Tuesday, jurors and court spectators will get a final glimpse of two attorneys who seem to share little except an open disdain for each other.
“I can’t think of a case where there’s been so much animosity,” said Panish, a veteran of more than 100 trials. “When I say good morning to them, they don’t even say good morning back.”
The stakes in the wrongful-death case are high, with one witness calculating that the pop star could have earned as much as $1.5 billion had he lived. But neither attorney, nor their law firms, is a foreigner when it comes to staggering sums of money.
AEG Live is represented by O’Melveny & Myers, a 128-year-old firm with 800 attorneys in 16 offices worldwide and a client list that includes Time Warner, Citigroup and Lockheed Martin. Its lawyers have served as U.S. secretary of State, secretary of Transportation and White House counsel.
The Jackson legal team is led by Panish, Shea and Boyle, which has one office and 15 lawyers. The firm has won 20 jury verdicts of $10 million or more, and its $4.9-billion judgment against General Motors, which a judge cut to $1.2 billion, was the largest personal injury verdict ever. The firm has done well enough to have an ownership interest in two airplanes.
Both Panish and Putnam are listed in the top 100 lawyers in California by the Daily Journal, but almost everything about their firms is different, from the attorneys they hire to their clients. Even the way they dress is different.
The O’Melveny & Myers attorneys look as though they were issued uniforms in colors ranging from black to dark gray. Jessica Stebbins Bina has worn black pantsuits every day of the nearly five months of trial. Contrast that with Deborah Chang, of the Jackson team, who has questioned witnesses while wearing a lime green coat, dangling earrings and high heels.
The O’Melveny team, nearly all Ivy Leaguers, is led by Putnam, a trim, balding man who grew up in Maine, attended Phillips Exeter and Harvard before earning his law degree at Georgetown. His wife, another Harvard grad, is executive director of Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute and was president of production for Miramax Films.
Panish, the son of a lawyer, is heavyset with a full head of graying black hair. He attended Catholic schools, went to Fresno State on a football scholarship and received his law degree from Southwestern Law School.
Panish was recommended to the Jackson family by Thomas A. Mesereau Jr., who defended the pop star when he was tried on child molestation charges in 2005. “I told the family Brian Panish was the best plaintiff’s civil trial lawyer in L.A. and that no one else comes close,” Mesereau said.
Even the way the firms are paid underscores their differences.
Putnam’s firm usually charges by the hour, and its lawyers get paid whether they win or lose. O’Melveny already has earned millions from the Jackson-AEG case.
Attorneys like Panish are more entrepreneurial. Each case is an investment, which is why his firm agrees to take fewer than 1% of those that come its way. “You have to be a risk taker to be a personal injury attorney,” said Jody Armour, a professor at USC’s Gould School of Law. “More of a swashbuckler by personality.”
They usually are paid a portion of their clients’ winnings, as much as 40%, and shell out the money for experts and other costs. If they lose, not only do they not get paid, they could be out a lot of money for their expenses.
“The big-firm lawyers get paid per hour,” Panish said, “and we get paid perhaps.”
Though corporate lawyers like Putnam seldom take cases to trial, the courtroom is a second home to personal injury attorneys such as Panish. “Since we filed this Jackson case in 2010, Brian Panish by himself has tried more cases to verdict than the entire team of O’Melveny lawyers working on this case have tried in their careers,” said Kevin Boyle, Panish’s partner.
During a recent week-long break in the Jackson trial, Panish was part of the legal team that won a $17-million verdict for an 85-year-old man whose leg was amputated below the knee after he was hit by a bus.
By the time a case like Jackson vs. AEG gets to trial, said John Nockleby, director of the Civil Justice Program at Loyola Law School, the two sides have already spent months squabbling over schedules, depositions, and expert witnesses.
“When the stakes are huge, as they are in this case, there are enormous pressures on lawyers to perform, to win these battles,” he said.
Over the course of the trial, Putnam has directed several pointed accusations at Panish, saying he had “defamed a number of people inside the courtroom and outside the courtroom” and was telling reporters lies.
Putnam declined to be interviewed for this story.
On the other side, Boyle said that O’Melveny has gone out of its way to make things difficult, not even offering the usual professional courtesies, such as the scheduling of depositions or making simple agreements. O’Melveny wouldn’t stipulate that Jackson was dead until after the trial had begun.
Asked if O’Melveny looked down on them, Boyle replied, “They certainly act that way. It seems a very coordinated effort of smugness.”
Panish remains angry that Putnam accused his firm of leaking sealed emails to The Times. “I’m not happy about our integrity being challenged.” Panish said.
Panish said he’s gone against O’Melveny before without any problems.
“I don’t have any issue with the law firm,” he said. “Mr. Putnam doesn’t like us. There’s not much we can do about it. Everybody in the world’s not going to like me.”
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