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Why AEG Live Won the Michael Jackson Lawsuit

'This jury was most persuaded by the personal-responsibility narrative," an expert says

Brian Panish, attorney for the Michael Jackson family, delivers his closing argument in Los Angeles, California.
Al Seib-Pool/Getty Images
October 4, 2013 9:40 AM ET

Michael Jackson's final concert promoter, AEG Live, won't have to pay as much as $1.5 billion to the late superstar's mother and children, a Los Angeles jury ruled Wednesday. The jury found the promoter not liable in the wrongful-death case after a trial that lasted more than five months and made public many disturbing facts about Jackson – from his alleged desperation to obtain powerful sleep medication to AEG's chief executive officer slapping the "despondent" star on his rear-end to psych him up.

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In three days of deliberations that foreman Gregg Barden called "extremely stressful," according to the Los Angeles Times, the jury debated the question of whether Jackson or AEG hired Dr. Conrad Murray, who was convicted of involuntary manslaughter after giving Jackson a deadly dose of propofol in June 2009. The jury found that AEG did, in fact, hire Murray, but answered "no" to the next crucial question, which was whether Murray was unfit or incompetent at the time to be Jackson's doctor.

"We didn't really expect the jury to find against us on that question," says Kevin Boyle, one of the Jackson family attorneys, suggesting the jury may have been "confused" about the phrasing of the question. "I don't know if anyone would predict that."

But Shawn Trell, AEG Live's senior vice president and general counsel, argues Jackson's lawyers made contradictory points throughout the trial. "The jury heard what poor condition Michael Jackson was in, how he had deteriorated, he was frail, underweight, he wasn't going to be able to do the 50 shows," he says. "Then when it came to damages, somehow he was going to tour more from age 50 to 66 than he did at any point in his life. The jury could pick up on that. They couldn't have it both ways."

At the time of his death, Jackson was preparing for a series of London concerts and was having trouble sleeping at night after rehearsals. The trial came down to whether AEG pressured Dr. Murray into propping up Jackson so he could complete the shows. Jackson's lawyers argued AEG's pressure created "excessive risk," says Jody David Armour, a University of Southern California law professor who followed the case. "There were two strong narratives here, and this jury was most persuaded by the personal-responsibility narrative," he says. "There was evidence that Michael Jackson wanted Dr. Murray – personal choice. He's a big boy."

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After the verdict, the opposing lawyers continued to trade barbs in separate interviews with Rolling Stone. "I heard Katherine Jackson get on the witness stand and say that the filing of this lawsuit was about a search for the truth," AEG's Trell says. "I think it was obvious to everybody this had nothing to do with the truth. It had everything to do with money." Boyle called Trell's statement "outrageous" and added: "The only thing the law provides in this country is money damages. So why would he be outraged that Mrs. Jackson and the Jackson children would be entitled to the same thing that anybody else would be entitled to?"

Boyle said her team will make a decision "shortly," after studying its options. Experts differ on whether an appeal is worth it. Stan Goldman, a Loyola Law School professor, wonders why the jury didn't consider a third question -- whether AEG was competent in supervising Murray. "With all this money involved, why not appeal?" he says. USC's Armour counters: "I can't imagine a successful appeal. I can't remember any kind of evidence that should have been submitted." 

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