(MCT) LOS ANGELES — As Michael Jackson’s highly anticipated comeback shows approached, promoter AEG was so desperate to become No. 1 in the concert industry that its executives ruthlessly pushed the pop star to perform, caring little about his health, an attorney said Monday.
In his opening statement, Brian Panish, who represents Jackson’s mother and his three children, told the jury that Anschutz Entertainment Group was willing to do whatever it took to catch up to its competitor, Live Nation.
“AEG had a problem, and they wanted to fix it,” he said. “They didn’t care who got lost in the wash.”
But AEG’s attorneys countered that it was Jackson who initially wanted to perform again because he was deeply in debt and insisted on hiring Dr. Conrad Murray. Murray administered the fatal dose of propofol that killed the singer shortly before he was scheduled to appear in a series of shows in London in 2009. Murray was later convicted of involuntary manslaughter.
“This case is about the choices we make and the personal responsibility that comes with them,” said defense attorney Marvin Putnam.
Putnam also said the trial would lift the veil on Jackson’s private persona. “We are going to show some ugly stuff,” he warned.
The lawsuit pits Jackson’s family against an entertainment conglomerate with deep pockets and a strong foothold in Los Angeles. It is expected to last four months and could put the singer’s eccentric lifestyle in the spotlight. Jackson fans from as far away as Italy showed up for a chance to win one of two seats in the courtroom.
Filed in 2010 by Jackson’s mother, Katherine, and his three children — Prince, Paris and Blanket — the suit accuses AEG’s concert and promotions arm, along with executives Randy Phillips and Paul Gongaware, of negligently hiring and controlling Murray.
Panish began his opening statement by talking about the pop star’s addiction to prescription drugs, which began after he suffered burns making a Pepsi commercial in 1993. He described Murray as a financially strapped doctor susceptible to pressure because he was behind on child support payments and in danger of losing his Las Vegas home to foreclosure.
But it was AEG, Panish said, who was ultimately responsible for the music legend’s 2009 death. Panish said experts will testify that the economic loss from Jackson’s death was $1.5 billion.
“Michael had a problem, Dr. Murray had a problem and AEG had a problem,” Panish told the jury of six men and six women. “You know what AEG’s problem was? They were not No. 1 in the concert business but they wanted to be.”
Panish projected slides of emails exchanged among AEG executives that surfaced last year. In one dated June 14, 2009, tour manager Gongaware responds to director Kenny Ortega’s plea to stay on top of Jackson’s health, as Murray had not allowed the singer to attend rehearsals one day.
Gongaware replied, “We want to remind (Murray) that it is AEG, not MJ who is paying his salary. We want him to understand what is expected of him.”
Turning to the jury, Panish asked, “Does this sound like a company that exercised reasonable care in supervising and retaining a doctor? Remember that in 11 days Michael Jackson is dead.”
AEG, however, said although it was common knowledge that Jackson had abused prescription painkillers, company officials were unaware he used propofol. “It wasn’t painkillers that killed Michael Jackson; propofol killed Michael Jackson,” Putnam said.
Putnam brought up Murray’s contract with AEG that would have paid the doctor $150,000 a month. It was never signed by Jackson or AEG.
In fact, Putnam said, Murray worked for Jackson and the doctor’s salary would have been an advance to Jackson, similar to the near-$30 million advance the company promised to pay for production costs and his mansion in the Holmby Hills section of Los Angeles.
In addition to the 02 Arena in London where Jackson was slated to perform, AEG owns Staples Center and Home Depot Center in Southern California. A high-profile political player in Los Angeles, AEG built the L.A. Live complex and is now working with the city to build a downtown NFL stadium.
The lawsuit is aimed at its subsidiary, AEG Live, known as a powerhouse in the concert industry. It produces festivals, including the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, and oversees long-running shows of Las Vegas entertainers such as Celine Dion. It is also promoting the upcoming Rolling Stones tour.
Although Jackson had agreed to only 50 dates in London, AEG proposed a three-year worldwide tour in which one executive estimated ticket sales could exceed $450 million. Billboard magazine estimated AEG’s profits would hit $115 million for the London shows, with Jackson earning $1 million a night. Putnam said that Jackson would receive 90 percent of the profits from the London shows.
If the singer failed to generate enough money to pay back the advances, the lawsuit said, AEG could seize his assets, among them a valuable catalog that includes songs by the Beatles, Aretha Franklin and the Jackson family.
Randy Jackson, Michael’s brother, was in court Monday, along with his sister Rebbie and mother, Katherine. “We love you Mrs. Jackson,” a fan called out when Katherine entered the courtroom.
About a dozen Jackson supporters vied for the two available seats to the public through a lottery system.
One seat went to Samantha De Gosson, a 38-year-old photographer from Pasadena, Calif., who said the opportunity was bittersweet.
“I’m happy I can go in, but not looking forward about what’s going to be said,” she said. “This is a trial where Michael Jackson will be thrown under the bus by both parties. It’s not really about justice. It’s about who’s going to make money.”
©2013 Los Angeles Times
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