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Not liable: Jacksons v AEG Update

By | Published on Thursday 3 October 2013

Michael Jackson

The Jackson family’s lawsuit against live music giant AEG Live always seemed optimistic. They wanted the promoter to be held liable for the actions of Dr Conrad Murray, whose negligent treatment of Michael Jackson – in the eyes of the criminal courts at least – caused the pop star’s death. But it was clear from the start that it was Jackson who brought Murray on board for the ‘This Is It’ project, even if AEG committed to pay his bills.

Though senior AEG execs didn’t come out of the five month trial particularly well, and lawyers for the Jackson family insisted that the live firm had a duty, when hiring Murray, to do background checks to confirm that the doctor wouldn’t play Russian roulette with their star’s life. They’re failure to do so, said the lawyers, meant that, even if Jackson was partly to blame for his own demise, AEG should also share some responsibility (80% of it, the Jacksons’ lawyer reckoned).

And as the jury started the third day of their deliberations earlier this week, Team AEG must have started to get a little stressed, because had the jurors answered the first question they were asked – “did AEG hire Murray?” – with a simple “no”, as AEG hoped they would, it shouldn’t be taking this long. The fact that discussions had gone onto a third day suggested they’d answered “yes” on that first point, and were now tackling the other fourteen questions the judge had posed about AEG’s liability.

And, indeed, the jury had answered that first question in the affirmative. AEG argued that it hadn’t hired the doctor because Jackson himself had recruited and managed the medic, and that while it may have committed to pay Murray’s bills, doing so was basically advancing cash to the singer. And anyway, the contract that set all this out wasn’t even signed when Jackson died. But on that point the jury didn’t concur – beyond the technicalities of how superstar tours are structured, AEG was is essence Murray’s employer, and while Jackson and AEG may have not inked the doctor’s contract, it was pretty much all agreed.

But, while AEG may have hired Murray to be Jackson’s personal medic for the ‘This Is It’ venture, was the company liable for his subsequent negligence? This is where the jury cut the live major a break. As a licensed doctor Murray was not “unfit” or “incompetent” for the job he was hired to do, the jury said, even if he proved to be unethical in the treatment he then provided to the late king of pop.

AEG didn’t have a responsibility to go digging into Murray’s personal life – to discover his acute financial problems, which possibly made him more prone to provide the prescription drugs Jackson craved in order to keep his job – because Murray was licensed to practice medicine, and it was reasonable for AEG to therefore assume he would perform the tasks he was hired to do in a responsible way.

The ruling will be a big relief to AEG, and others in the live space, who routinely pay for all sorts of staff members to assist the stars they work with; had the Jacksons won this case promoters would have had to seriously reconsider the way these staff members are appointed and managed. Though it’s worth noting that the jury did rule that AEG was Murray’s employer, despite the non-traditional nature of the way he was hired, and that liability was really avoided because doctors are licensed and therefore, by definition, suitable for the job of personal physician, even if they subsequently screw it up big time.

Needless to say, AEG welcomed the ruling. One of the firm’s top execs Randy Phillips, whose testimony was among the fieriest, told reporters: “I counted Michael Jackson as a creative partner and a friend. We lost one of the world’s greatest musical geniuses, but I am relieved and deeply grateful that the jury recognised that neither I, nor anyone else at AEG Live, played any part in Michael’s tragic death”.

The Jackson family’s lawyer Kevin Boyle confirmed that “of course [they are] not happy with the result as it stands now. We will be exploring all options legally and factually and make a decision about anything at a later time”.

Any appeal aside, the ruling brings to an end five months of court hearings, but also a story that really began in March 2009 when AEG and Michael Jackson first announced their ambitious ‘This Is It’ venture. It’s a long, dramatic and emotional story that you can relive step by step with this CMU timeline.