Four years after Michael Jackson's death on the eve of his attempted career reboot, jury selection began on Tuesday (April 2) in the $40 billion wrongful death suit filed by the late pop icon's family against concert promoter AEG Live.
While the Jacksons claim that the company behind Jackson's planned 50-date "This Is It" show in London should be held responsible for his death on June 25, 2009, AEG is expected to argue that Jackson was to blame for his passing at age 50.
Jackson family claims:
Jackson struggled for decades with an addiction to powerful prescription pain and sleeping medication. Lawyers for Jackson's mother, Katherine, and his three children are expected to blame AEG Live for hiring Dr. Conrad Murray, a cardiologist who is behind bars on involuntary manslaughter charges after it was determined that he gave Jackson a lethal dose of the surgical anesthetic propofol, which resulted in his death.
It's possible that Katherine Jackson and eldest children Prince and Paris could testify in the trial, which may last several months. The $40 billion figure is the equivalent of what Jackson could have earned for the rest of his life from performing and recording. The suit went forward after a judge determined that lawyers for the estate had provided enough evidence that AEG Live was negligent in hiring Murray and should have known that the doctor would use dangerous combinations of prescription drugs to treat the singer's chronic insomnia.
One of the keys to the family's case is an e-mail sent by AEG Live Co-CEO Paul Gongaware 11 days before Jackson's death that provides evidence that "This Is It" show director Kenny Ortega expressed concerns to Murray about Jackson's health the previous day. "We want to remind (Murray) that it is AEG, not MJ, who is paying his salary," read the e-mail. "We want to remind him what is expected of him."
Lawyers for the Jackson family will argue that the e-mail is proof that AEG Live traded on Murray's fear of losing his lucrative gig taking care of Jackson to pressure him to do whatever it took to get the singer ready for the concerts, regardless of Jackson's fragile condition.
In rejecting AEG Live's earlier attempt to have the suit thrown out, the judge in the case said she agree with the Jackson lawyers that AEG Live didn't do a sufficient enough background check on Murray, which would have revealed that he was deeply in debt.
"There is a triable issue of fact as to whether it was foreseeable that such a physician under strong financial pressure may compromise his Hippocratic Oath and do what was known by AEG Live's executives to be an unfortunate practice in the entertainment industry for financial gain," the judge wrote.
AEG Live's defense:
Lawyers for the global promotions giant are expected to argue that it was Jackson who hired Murray, not them. According to CNN they are likely to use as evidence Jackson's long history of erratic behavior, his 2005 acquittal on child molestation charges and claims that he doctor shopped to paint a picture of chronic drug use. The key to AEG's defense is expected to be the company's contention that Jackson personally hired Murray and paid his bills for nearly four years.
"I don't know how you can't look to Mr. Jackson's responsibility there," AEG lawyer Marvin Putnam told the network. "He was a grown man ... Mr. Jackson is a person who was known to doctor shop. He was known to be someone who would tell one doctor one thing and another doctor something else."
Though acquitted on the molestation charges, Putnam said the trial is relevant because it "resulted in an incredible increase in his drug intake."
Before jury selection began on Tuesday morning, the judge in the case was scheduled to hear arguments to allow TV cameras in the courtroom. Murray, who is serving a four year jail term, has said he might invoke his Fifth Amendment right to avoid answering questions in the wrongful death suit. But Putnam noted that in an interview with police two days after Jackson's death Murray said he was Jackson's employee, not AEG's, even though the promoter was expected to cut paychecks equaling $150,000 a month.
Murray started treating Jackson six days a Week in May 2009, but it wasn't until the night before the singer's death that he officially signed his service contract with AEG Live; Putnam said AEG Live's executives never signed the contract.
Putnam said he learned during the discovery process that Jackson was personally paying Murray during the last two months of his life, a claim that Jackson's lawyers declined to comment on. He also said that the so-called "smoking gun" email from Gongaware was no such thing because a doctor's Hippocratic Oath would not allow him to do anything that might harm his patient.