LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Almost four years after his shocking death, the bizarre life and sorry demise of Michael Jackson will play out again in a $40 billion civil trial that pits the singer’s family against the organizers of a musical comeback that never happened.
Opening statements are set for Monday in what is expected to be an emotional, three-month long jury trial that seeks to hold AEG Live, the promoters of the never-realized series of 2009 London concerts, liable for the wrongful death of the “Thriller” singer.
The lawsuit, brought by Jackson’s elderly mother Katherine on behalf of the singer’s three children, alleges that privately-held AEG Live was negligent in hiring the physician convicted in 2011 of his involuntary manslaughter to care for the singer while he rehearsed for the series of 50 shows.
Jackson, 50, drowning in debt and seeking to rebuild a reputation damaged by his 2005 trial and acquittal on child molestation charges, died in Los Angeles of an overdose of the powerful surgical anesthetic propofol and a cocktail of other sedatives in June 2009.
His personal physician, Dr. Conrad Murray, is serving a four-year prison sentence after being found criminally negligent by administering propofol to Jackson as a sleep aid.
Murray’s six-week trial in 2011 portrayed the former child star known for his stunning dance moves and spectacular public performances as a slurring, drugged-up man off-stage who slept with a toy doll on his bed and whose planned comeback tour was plagued with problems.
The civil trial in Los Angeles is expected to be just as sensational, although a request by TV networks for live coverage was turned down.
AEG Live contends that it did not hire or supervise Murray and claims that Jackson had prescription drug problems for years before entering into any agreement for the “This is It” London concerts.
The concert promoters also argue that they could not have foreseen that Murray posed a danger to Jackson.
Los Angeles Superior Court judge Yvette Palazuelos ruled last month that AEG Live can raise Jackson’s 2005 child abuse case as it may be relevant to the singer’s history of prescription drug abuse and despondency.
Jackson’s two oldest children, Prince, 16 and Paris, 15, are on the witness list this time, although neither testified in Murray’s trial. Singers Prince and Diana Ross are also potential witnesses along with the singer’s ex-wives, Lisa-Marie Presley and Debbie Rowe.
“Any time you start injecting family members and rather sensitive issues (into the mix), there are going to be strong feelings,” former federal prosecutor Marcellus McRae told Reuters.
Murray is not being sued but is also on the witness list, although he has made clear from jail that he will refuse to answer questions for fear of jeopardizing his appeal process.
McRae, now a trial lawyer with Los Angeles firm Gibson Dunn, said that while the criminal trial focused heavily on medical and scientific evidence - including a defense theory that Jackson gave himself the fatal dose of propofol - the jury in the civil case has a very different task.
“The jurors are going to be asked to decide to what extent a third party can be held liable for the actions of someone else.
“To what extent did they (AEG Live) have visibility into what Dr. Murray was doing, did they encourage what he was doing? To what extent was whatever Dr. Murray did a reasonable and foreseeable consequence,” McRae said.
Katherine Jackson, 82, and her son’s three children are seeking some $40 billion in damages from AEG Live for loss of the singer’s earnings and other damages.
AEG Live has argued in court papers that the figure is absurd because Jackson’s career was in a downward spiral at the time of his death.
The final amount will be determined by the jury should it hold AEG Live liable for negligence.
Reporting By Jill Serjeant; Editing by Paul Simao