L.A. Now

New courtroom drama over Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson's death nearly four years ago has been the subject of intense curiosity, endless media speculation and even a dramatic courtroom drama in which the King of Pop's doctor was found guilty of causing his death.

But all that may end up being a warm-up act for the legal showdown set to begin Monday .

In a wrongful death lawsuit, the singer's mother and three children accuse concert promoter Anschutz Entertainment Group of threatening to end Jackson's career if he failed to deliver on a series of comeback concerts in London and hiring the doctor who was later convicted of giving the singer a lethal dose of the anesthetic propofol.

The witness list is extensive and star-studded: Prince, Spike Lee, Quincy Jones, Diana Ross. And because the case will play out in civil court, experts said both sides would be allowed to introduce evidence not permitted in the criminal trial of Jackson's doctor.

The trial could last deep into the summer, and getting to a verdict will probably take a tour through the sensational: The singer's excursions into drug use, his deepening debt and a re-telling of the child molestation accusations that followed him.

Though the lawsuit doesn't seek a specific dollar amount, it could run into the billions. The case also pits the lasting celebrity of one of the world's best-known performers against AEG, the entertainment powerhouse that owns clubs, stadiums, arenas and sports franchises around the world.

The suit alleges that AEG "hired and controlled" Dr. Conrad Murray, who — while trying to help his insomniac patient sleep — gave Jackson a fatal dose of a drug normally reserved for medical settings. AEG knew of Jackson's fragile health, the suit contends, but put its desire for profits ahead of his safety. Murray is now serving time for involuntary manslaughter.

"A severely, visibly ill pop star with a known history of drug problems, a financially desperate doctor who demanded highly unusual, life-saving medical equipment, and enormous pressure on the doctor to ensure the pop star's performance (instead of his well-being)," the Jackson family's attorneys wrote in court documents.

"AEG should have realized this was a dangerous cocktail."

The entertainment firm, along with company executives, argues that it was Jackson who hired Murray and insisted on him as his doctor as the "This Is It" concerts approached.

"The basic standoff is going to be Michael Jackson being the author of his own demise, versus a profit-maximizing, greedy even, commercial enterprise exercising its control," said Jody Armour, a USC law professor.

The company is also one of the most important political players in Los Angeles, building LA Live and the Staples Center and working with the city to build a downtown football stadium in an effort to attract a professional team. But AEG has been in upheaval for months, with owner Philip Anschutz putting it on the market and then just as suddenly pulling it off.

In many ways, Jackson himself will be put on the stand. Not only do the plaintiffs have to persuade jurors that AEG is to blame for his death, but to show how much he would have earned had he lived. AEG will try to prove that not only is it not to blame, but that Jackson's erratic behavior had diminished his earning power.

There could be testimony about Jackson's colorful lifestyle, the child molestation allegations — including a multimillion-dollar settlement with a 12-year-old accuser — and the financial problems that left him hundreds of millions of dollars in debt.

"All sorts of things will be let in that weren't let in at the criminal trial," said Stanley Goldman, a professor at Loyola Law School. "There's much more chance of a celebrity-filled, gossipy circus."

Beyond the celebrities on the witness list, attorneys have indicated they may call both of Jackson's former wives to the stand, including Lisa Marie Presley. Much of Jackson's family — his children, his mother, his siblings — are on the witness list, as is Anschutz, the reclusive billionaire who owns AEG.

Doctors will testify about Jackson's health, and accountants and financial advisors will talk about his money problems and what he stood to make in the AEG deal, or lose if he pulled out.

According to its contract with the entertainer, AEG advanced Jackson close to $30 million, which included a $15-million line of credit, a $5-million advance, $7.5 million to cover production costs to mount the shows and rent for a $100,000-a-month Holmby Hills mansion.

If the singer failed to generate enough money to pay back the loans, according to the lawsuit, AEG could seize his assets, among them a valuable song catalog that includes titles by the Beatles, Aretha Franklin and the Jackson family.

The trial "is going to generate tremendous publicity worldwide because Michael was the best-known celebrity on the planet while alive," said Thomas Mesereau, who defended Jackson in the 2005 child molestation case.

The case could turn on more than 250 pages of emails that seem to show AEG executives knew about Jackson's mental and physical frailties as he prepared for his 50 concerts at the company's 02 Arena in London. Lawyers are still battling over more than 300,000 pages of documents that AEG's attorneys have labeled confidential, meaning they can be used in the trial but can't be made public until they are entered into evidence.

Jackson's estate, which is not a party to the suit, has fought to keep some documents, mainly medical information, available only to the judge, jury and lawyers.

Those rehearsing with Jackson voiced worries a month before the tour's scheduled opening on July 13, 2009, according to emails, complaining he was slow to learn routines and might need to lip-sync some songs.

Randy Phillips, president and chief executive of AEG Live, wrote in an email to his boss: "MJ is locked in his room drunk and despondent. I [am] trying to sober him up."

He later wrote: "I screamed at him so loud the walls are shaking. He is an emotionally paralyzed mess riddled with self-loathing and doubt now that it is show time."

Kenny Ortega, who had known Jackson for 20 years and was directing the "This Is It" shows, wrote Phillips that the singer needed psychiatric help. "There are strong signs of paranoia, anxiety and obsessive-like behavior," he said. "I think the very best thing we can do is get a top psychiatrist in to evaluate him ASAP."

On another occasion, Ortega's call for Jackson to be "psychologically evaluated" led to an emergency meeting at the star's Holmby Hills mansion about his readiness to perform.

A central question will be who actually employed Murray — Jackson or AEG. The Las Vegas doctor, deep in debt himself, was supposed to be paid $150,000 a month. Murray, who worked with Jackson for two months to prepare him for the concerts, signed a contract the night before Jackson's death, but it was never signed by AEG executives or the singer.

There was big money riding on Jackson's concerts.

Though Jackson had agreed to only 50 dates in London, AEG proposed a three-year worldwide tour in which Phillips estimated ticket sales could exceed $450 million. Billboard magazine estimated AEG's profits would hit $115 million for the London shows, with Jackson earning $1 million a night.

Times staff writer Corina Knoll contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World