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Judge Rules Michael Jackson Wrongful Death Suit Can Go To Jury

September 17, 2013

Nearly two years ago, Dr. Conrad Murray was sentenced to four years in jail after a LA County jury found the doctor guilty of involuntary manslaughter in Michael Jackson's 2009 death. At trial, experts for the prosecution argued Dr. Murray was guilty of gross medical malpractice when he fatally infused the anesthesia drug propofol into Jackson for insomnia when the drug is intended for patients during surgery. An LA County jury is now hearing a civil wrongful death suit against the entertainment promotion company, AEG Live, brought on behalf of Jackson's mother and his children. Last week, the trial judge rejected AEG's motion to dismiss allowing the case to continue to go forward as both sides prepare for remaining witnesses and closing arguments.

The legal theory against AEG is less straightforward than the criminal medical malpractice case against Dr. Murray. The Jackson family lawyers argue AEG negligently hired, retained or supervised Dr. Murray to be Jackson's physician, paying him $150,000 a month, when they knew or should have known Dr. Murray presented an unreasonable risk of harm to Jackson. Specifically, the lawyers argue AEG contractually agreed to pay Dr. Murray $150,000 a month, an extraordinary figure for any physician to simply treat one patient, when AEG knew Dr. Murray was in desperate need of money and knew he would lose all his income if the tour was postponed or cancelled because of Jackson's deteriorating health. The lawyers argue this financial tension for Dr. Murray created a medical conflict of interest and ultimately contributed to Dr. Murray's decision to prescribe Jackson an illegal and highly dangerous drug in order to continue preparing for his tour.

AEG's lawyers argue they did not hire or control Dr. Murray--Jackson did. As a result, they contend they cannot be responsible for anything Dr. Murray did wrong. They further claim they had no way of knowing that Dr. Murray was giving Jackson the potentially fatal anesthesia drug, propofol, to treat Jackson for insomnia.

In the end, the trial judge rejected AEG Live's arguments. In doing so, the Judge ruled "[s]ubstantial evidence has been presented at trial from which a jury can reasonably infer that defendants (AEG Live) knew or should have known that Dr. Murray presented an undue risk of harm to decedent (Jackson)." The Judge also ruled "[a] jury may logically infer from the evidence that (Jackson) died because Dr. Murray, who was adversely affected by a conflict of interested created by his contractual arrangement with AEG Live, treated a deteriorating insomniac who was not ready to perform, causing Dr. Murray to make bad medical decisions that caused (Jackson's) death." However, in one victory for the defense, the Judge did dismiss two executives from AEG Live who were also individually named in the lawsuit.

How a jury will decide this case is difficult to assess. If the jury determines that AEG did not hire Dr. Murray and did nothing to control his actions, a jury could easily find AEG Live not liable for Jackson's death. There is, however, still a chance the jury accepts the plaintiff's theory that AEG Live created a medical inflict of interest that caused Jackson's death. However, this theory is complicated and presents a considerable challenge for Jackson's attorneys. The fact AEG Live, rather than Jackson, was paying Dr. Murray $150,000 to treat Jackson is, however, very odd and a potential saving grace for the plaintiffs. If the jury believes AEG Live knew Jackson was in deteriorating health and Dr. Murray was providing unsafe medical care simply to continue to receive payments from AEG Live, a jury could blame AEG for Jackson's death. After all, both Dr. Murray and AEG Live had a strong financial interest to push Jackson to continue with his scheduled tour--even if it meant pushing Jackson to the brink.

How this case is decided will depend largely on the makeup of the jury. Those who are predisposed against lawsuits will have a very difficult time digesting the plaintiff's theory of liability, which may be interpreted as convoluted. Even moderate jurors may struggle to find liability against a promotion company for the wrongful acts of their client's personal doctor. However, those who are predisposed to despise the lengths to which a corporation may go to make money off of others may accept the plaintiffs' theory. Closing arguments may begin as early as September 19th.

Sources Used:

CNN, Michael Jackson Wrongful Death Suit Will Go To Jury, Judge Rules, September 10, 2013.

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