For any litigator, defending a client against billion-dollar claims is a big deal, especially if the case makes it to trial. Now try adding a dead mega-star, a sordid tale of drug abuse, a medical whodunit, and rabid fans stalking the courthouse.
That’s precisely what faced Marvin Putnam of O’Melveny & Myers, who represented the concert promoter AEG Live in the $1.5 billion wrongful death lawsuit brought by the family of Michael Jackson. On Oct. 2, a jury in Los Angeles sided with Putnam and rejected the Jackson family’s theory that AEG negligently hired and supervised Conrad Murray, the doctor who gave Jackson a fatal dose of the sedative propofol in 2009.
Putnam confronted plenty of challenges during the five-month trial. Jackson’s family alleged that AEG was so eager to recoup its investment in Jackson’s 50-show comeback tour that it pressured Murray to pump the insomniac King of Pop with meds. Clearing AEG’s name meant arguing that Jackson bore responsibility for the overdose that killed him — a theory that infuriated some Jackson sympathizers. Fans protested AEG outside the courthouse, and Jackson’s grieving mother told the jury that AEG “watched him waste away.” Putnam also had to take the sting out of troublesome internal e-mails his client produced during discovery, including one in which an AEG higher-up wrote that “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.”
After taking a few days to recover from the trial and savor the victory, Putnam spoke with the Litigation Daily about his strategy, the verdict, and what it could mean for the entertainment industry. Our conversation has been edited for clarity.
Litigation Daily: What evidence was most helpful to your case?
Marvin Putnam: It’s not really about the evidence we had. It’s the evidence that the Jackson family didn’t have. I think what stuck with jurors was the fact that they didn’t come up with any evidence — even circumstantial evidence — that AEG knew what was going on between Mr. Jackson and Dr. Murray.
That said, there was plenty of evidence that helped our case. We pulled back the curtain on Mr. Jackson’s world. Until now, no one had any idea of the extent of Mr. Jackson’s substance abuse problem over the last decades. We also pulled back the curtain on the concert promotion world — a world that few people actually know much about. I think jurors were surprised to learn that concert promoters are promoting someone else’s vision. There isn’t the level of oversight some might believe.
LD: How did you pull back the curtain, so to speak, on Jackson’s drug use?
MP: By bringing this case, Jackson’s family put his medical history directly at issue. For the first time, people outside Jackson’s world were exposed to his medical records. We talked to his doctors and slowly pieced together a history of doctor shopping. An anesthesiologist told us that he approached her outside a surgical setting and asked for propofol. Another doctor testified that he went to Jackson’s home and saw a box of propofol.
It was a lot of investigative work. It’s not like we set off on a path, knowing what we wanted to find. We talked to everybody — his security, members of his household staff. One source of information led to another.
LD: Did you ever worry about coming off as too aggressive in front of the jury?
MP: We didn’t go into things that we didn’t think were relevant, like the child molestation accusations. Rather than attack Jackson, and rather than sully his reputation, we tried to portray him for what he was — a complex person with a creative genius who, tragically, had a long history of drug addiction. I think the vast majority of Jackson fans were pleased with how we handled it, and displeased with his family for bringing this case and putting his medical history at issue.
That said, there were certainly a core group of people who were very much against us and came to the courthouse every day. They did some unsavory things during trial right up to the verdict, like trying to spit on me and shouting profanities. It would have been easy and understandable to be distracted by all that, but my co-counsel and I tried not to let it get to us.
LD: What lessons can the concert promotion industry take from the verdict?
MP: No two tours are alike, so it’s tough generalize. In some ways, this was a very unique set of facts. But I do think the verdict highlights the importance of personal responsibility for people in the business.
Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this item reported that the AEG trial lasted five weeks. The actual duration was five months.