Dramatic revelations and legal fireworks expected as Michael Jackson's family begin quest for $40bn damages

Late superstar’s mother claims promoter of London concerts put money before welfare of troubled King of Pop

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The Independent Culture

The late King of Pop came under the spotlight once more on Monday, as details of the days leading up to Michael Jackson’s demise four years ago were aired at the start of a wrongful death trial in Los Angeles.

Jackson’s mother is suing concert promoters AEG Live for negligence, claiming the firm was responsible for hiring the star’s personal doctor, Conrad Murray, who was convicted of manslaughter in 2011 and is serving four years in jail.

In his opening statement, the Jackson family’s lawyer Brian Panish blamed the singer’s death on a combination of factors, including the star’s own drug dependency. “Michael Jackson, Dr Conrad Murray and AEG Live each played a part in the ultimate result, the death of Michael Jackson,” Panish told the jury of six men and six women.

Katherine Jackson, 82, her son Randy and daughter Rebbie were at court for the opening day of the trial, which is expected to provide new revelations regarding Jackson’s death in June 2009 from an overdose of the powerful prescription anaesthetic propofol. Murray was hired to help Jackson, then 50, to prepare for a series of 50 comeback concerts at the O2 arena in London. Mrs Jackson and the star’s three children filed suit in September 2010, claiming AEG had failed adequately to vet the doctor, who is now appealing his conviction.

Panish told the court that the late star had developed a prescription medication addiction after suffering severe burns during filming for a Pepsi commercial in 1984. Murray regularly prescribed Jackson propofol to combat his insomnia. Jackson’s anxiety and dependency on drugs, said Panish, “became more prevalent when he was going through a rigorous schedule.”

Mrs Jackson’s legal team will rely heavily on a cache of 250 private emails exchanged by AEG executives during rehearsals for Jackson’s “This Is It” concert series. The messages reportedly chronicle the firm’s dogged insistence that the star continue to perform, despite his dramatic physical and emotional decline.

In one email, AEG promoter Randy Phillips allegedly explained to company president Tim Leiwecke that he had found Jackson locked in his London hotel room, drunk, the day before he was due to announce the concerts. “I screamed at him so loud the walls are shaking,” Phillips wrote. “He is an emotionally paralysed mess riddled with self-loathing and doubt.”

Two months after the singer’s death, Phillips allegedly wrote that, “Michael’s death is a terrible tragedy, but life must go on. AEG will make a fortune from merch sales, ticket retention, the touring exhibition and the film/dvd.”

The plaintiffs’ suit suggests “AEG had legal duties to Michael Jackson to treat him safely and to not put him in harm’s way. But AEG, despite its knowledge of Michael Jackson’s physical condition, breached those duties by putting its desire for massive profits from the tour over the health and safety of Michael Jackson.”

In one key exchange, AEG co-CEO Paul Gongaware, emailed Kenny Ortega, director of the This Is It concerts, saying, “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.” Eleven days later, Jackson was dead.

In his opening statement, AEG Live's lawyer Marvin Putnam warned the court that it his team would air “some ugly stuff” during the trial, as they defend the firm from any accusations of wrongdoing. AEG argues that the star personally selected Murray, who had treated him previously.

The concert promoter has claimed in court filings that the Jacksons are seeking as much as $40bn (£26bn) in damages, but Panish denies having named a figure. The suggestion of such an extravagant demand is, he said, part of the entertainment firm’s strategy to “prejudice everybody against the Jacksons.”

Among those listed as potential witnesses at the trial are Jackson’s ex-wives Lisa Marie Presley and Debbie Rowe, and several of his celebrity friends, including Diana Ross, Spike Lee and Thriller producer Quincy Jones. The trial could last as long as 90 days.

As a crowd gathered outside the cramped courthouse, just two fans won a lottery for the sole pair of seats available to the general public. One, photographer Samantha De Gosson, 38, told the Los Angeles Times, “I'm happy I can go in, but not looking forward about what's going to be 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.”