When the Jackson family began their $40 billion wrongful death suit against Denver billionaire Philip Anchutz’s American Entertainment Group [AEG] April 2, few people took it seriously, that they’d prove their case. When 50-year-old Michael Jackson died in the early morning June 25, 2009 after a successful dress rehearsal for his “This is it” London tour, the focus was all on Jackson’s 59-year-old “personal” physician Dr. Conrad Murray. Suspicions about Jackson’s cause of death swirled June 25, 2009 with AEG quick to blame it on heart failure. It took until Aug. 25, 2009 before the Los Angeles County Coroner found that Michael died of a Propofol overdose administered by his personal physician Dr. Conrad Murray. It took another six months before Murray was charged Feb. 2, 2010 by Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley with involuntary manslaughter.
Murray’s connection with Jackson’s death raised controversial ethical and legal issues related medical practice. Before the trial began Sept. 27, 2011, the Los Angeles District Attorney lowered the bar, prosecuting Murray for involuntary manslaughter. Legal experts thought Murray’s inappropriate use of Propofol to treat Jackson’s insomnia went at least to voluntary manslaughter, if not second-degree murder. Once the coroner linked Jackson’s death to a Propofol overdose, Murray’s defense team led by Ed Chernoff tried to blame Jackson for overdosing himself, either by oral consumption or self-injection. Murray’s trial raised many ethical and legal questions regarding medical practice, certainly about scope of practice and off-use of injectable medications. Treating Jackson’s insomnia with Propofol was considered well below the standard-of-care.
National, State and local medical associations around the nation disagreed with charging Murray with a criminal offense. Most saw the Jackson’s case as non-criminal malpractice. When the 12-member jury returned its verdict of Nov. 7, 2011, few people had much sympathy for Murray as he was carted off to state prison. While the focus was on Murray’s reckless negligence, few imagined that it was AEG that hired Murray to manage Jackson’s precarious medical state. With a lot of cash riding on what was billed as Jackson’s last concert tour, AEG Live Co-CEO Paul Gongaware had a lot riding on keeping Jackson healthy. Hiring Murray was AEG ace-in-the-hole to keep Jackson healthy to pull of the unlikely 50-concert tour. No one until today knew that AEG—not Jackson himself—hired Murray to look after the pop singer’s health and various medical ailments.
Murray’s Nov. 7, 2011 conviction for involuntary manslaughter was the first major hurdle for the Jackson family, believing that concert promoter AEG was responsible for Jackson’s death. Today’s testimony by AEG Co-CEO Paul Gongaware was the first the public knew AEG hired and employed Murray. Gongaware didn’t recall a written memo confirming that it was AEG, not Murray, that paid Dr. Conrad Murray. “We want to remind [Murray] that it is AEG, not MJ, who is paying his salary. We want to remind him what is expected of him,” Gongaware wrote in a private email. “I still don’t recall writing it,” Gongaware told Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post. “But obviously I did,” Gongaware told Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Yvette Palazuelos. AEG entire defense against the wrongful death suit was based on proving Murray worked for exclusively for Jackson.
Admitting that Murray—who was convicted Nov. 7, 2011 of involuntary manslaughter—actually worked for concert promoter AEG is a devastating admission. Jackson’s former choreographer Kenny Ortega produced the damaging email dated only days before Jackson’s death. “We want to remind [Murray] that it is AEG, not MJ, who is paying his salary. We want to remind him what is expected of him,” wrote Gongaware. Now that it’s established that AEG employed Murray, the jury must decide the extent of AEG’s culpability, or the extent to which they’re responsible for hiring an incompetent physician to manage Jackson’s medical care. However the jury apportions blame will determine the extent of how much the Jackson family gets of the $40 billion. When you consider that Murray only got four years, Judge Michael Pastor showed moderation.
Dredging up Jackson’s alleged history of molesting children, AEG may have antagonized the jury, knowing that AEG wasn’t forthcoming about the fact that they hired and employed Murray to look after Jackson. Whatever a licensed physician did to butcher Jackson, it’s a stretch to completely blame concert promoter AEG for Jackson’s wrongful death. There’s little doubt that had Murray not crossed the line and engaged in reckless negligence enough to convict him of involuntary manslaughter, Jackson might still be alive. When the Brown and Goldman families sued O.J. Simpson for wrongful death in 1997, Los Angeles Atty. Daniel Petrocelli won an $8.5 million judgment. Suing AEG for wrongful termination—not Murray—stretches the meaning of liability to the breaking point. AEG may share some of the blame but Murray—not AEG—negligently killed Jackson.
About the Author
John M. Curtis writes politically neutral commentary analyzing spin in national and global news. He’s editor of OnlineColumnist.com and author of Dodging The Bullet and Operation Charisma.