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A Few Words About the Michael Jackson Verdict

October 5, 2013

 

You may have been following the trial of Jackson v. AEG Live, in which Michael Jackson's mother Katherine sued AEG Live. Mrs. Jackson claimed that AEG live was negligent when it hired Dr. Conrad Murray to take care of Michael Jackson's medical needs while preparing for an upcoming concert tour.

After following it as it was happening, and reading about it after the result came out, I can say with perfect 20/20 hindsight, that the jury verdict form may have sunk Katherine Jackson's case from the beginning.

If you've followed the trial, then you know that the jury found that AEG Live wasn't liable for Michael Jackson death. Maybe you saw that coming. Maybe you were left wondering, "How the heck did that happen?" After all, Conrad Murray was criminally convicted for manslaughter in connection with Michael Jackson's death. Since the standard for a criminal conviction, beyond a reasonable doubt, is much higher than the "more likely than not" standard for civil liability, how could the jury find AEG not liable?

This trial is a good example of how the justice system works. Whether you agree with the verdict or not, there's a lot to learn from what happened.

When someone sues, they have to have what we call a "legal theory" for why the other person is liable (meaning owes them money). A "legal theory" is a legal reason for explaining why what the other person did violated the law in some way.

So let's break it down. Here, Katherine Jackson sued AEG Live for "negligence." Negligence requires that the plaintiff (the person suing, in this case, Katherine Jackson) demonstrate that (a) AEG live had a duty to use due care, (b) that AEG breached that duty, and (c) that the breach caused whatever happened that Ms. Jackson was suing for.

Mrs. Jackson had to prove each one of those things to win her suit.

Now, juries don't get to decide how they "feel" about a case. They can't make their decisions based on a general "impression" of what happened. They have to go through each requirement for negligence (called the "elements" of negligence) and see if Mrs. Jackson proved her case.

Here, the jury answered "No" to one of the questions they had to answer on the jury verdict form: "Was Dr. Conrad Murray unfit and incompetent to serve as the singer's general practitioner?"

Whatever evidence the jury heard convinced it that, as a general proposition, Dr. Murray was not unfit and incompetent. We heard jurors say afterward that if the question had been, "Was Dr. Murray unethical," the outcome might have been different.

I'm not sure that this question on the jury verdict form accurately reflected the legal requirements for negligence. It's not clear to me at all that Dr. Murray had to be unfit and incompetent for AEG Live to have been negligent in hiring him. Those questions, however, were argued to the court by the plaintiff and the defendant, and this is the verdict form that the court decided would go in front of the jury.

These legal discussions about what instructions jurors get and what questions the jurors have to decide occur in the courtroom, with all the lawyers and the judge present, and away from the jury. The lawyers make their arguments, but the judge ultimately decides what the jury will hear and what the jury will be asked to decide.

Here, maybe the plaintiff and defendant agreed about what would be on the form. We don't know, although all of it is public record, so someone who was curious enough could get hold of the courtroom transcripts and find out.

It does seem, though, that what went on the jury's verdict form figured heavily in the ultimate outcome of the case.

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