May 1, 2013 UPDATE: Why Conrad Murray isn’t a defendant in the Michael Jackson trial

by feldmanwallach

This is a wrongful death trial – without the killer. How does that make sense? Why isn’t the individual who administered the drugs that killed Michael Jackson being sued for the death of Michael Jackson?

The answer is money. Suing Conrad Murray, in addition to AEG, Live (the Tour Promoter of the “This Is It” tour), would have reduced the amount of money that the Jackson family can pursue if they win.

In a civil trial, money is awarded for “damages.” Damages can be awarded for economic losses (“special damages”) – which are things that are easy to calculate – like lost earnings or medical expenses. Non-economic damages can also be awarded, and these include “general” damages, such as compensation for pain and suffering, and punitive damages (awarded to punish defendants for engaging for highly-offensive conduct).

“Joint and Several Liability” means that each defendant is independently responsible for the whole amount the plaintiff is awarded. If a joint and several award of a million dollars is issued against two brothers, one brother can’t satisfy his entire obligation by paying $500,000 – each brother is obligated for the full million, until it is paid off (the plaintiff can’t collect more than the $500,000.)

Under California Law, economic damages are awarded against defendants as joint and several. But non-economic damages are not joint and several and can be “apportioned.” (see Cal. Civil Code Section 1431.2). So consider this – a jury finds that two companies, Company A and Company B, contributed to an injury. The jury decides that the plaintiff had $500,000 in medical costs and lost earnings. The jury also decides to award the plaintiff $1,500,000 for pain and suffering, plus another $500,000 in punitive damages, totaling $2,000,000. And the jury gets a damages verdict form and decides that Company A is responsible for 99% of the injury and Company B is responsible for 1% of the injury. Under this scenario, both Company A and Company B are each responsible for the $500,000 in economic damages until that’s paid off. If Company A has no money and can’t pay, Company B has to pay the full $500,000. But as to the remaining $2,000,000 in non-economic damages, Company A would owe $1,980,000, and Company B would owe only $20,000.

Let’s put this in the context of the Jackson trial. Imagine that the jury decides in the Jackson family’s favor, and awards twenty million dollars in lost earnings, plus one billion dollars in pain and suffering. Then imagine that Conrad Murray was a defendant and the jury found him to be 99% responsible for Michael Jackson’s death. In this case, Conrad Murray and AEG Live would each be responsible for the twenty million dollars in lost earnings. And Murray doesn’t have any money, so that would be paid by AEG, Live. But as to the one billion dollars in non-economic damages, Murray would owe 990 million – which he doesn’t have and would never get paid. AEG would be on the hook for 10 million. AEG’s total obligation would be thirty million dollars.

Now consider the same result, but with the case brought in its present form — where Conrad Murray is not a named defendant. The jury decides in the plaintiffs’ favor, awards the Jackson family twenty million dollars in lost earnings, and one billion dollars in pain and suffering. There is no Conrad Murray to apportion damages to. So AEG, Live is on the hook for the one billion and twenty million dollars.

An award of one billion and twenty million dollars is a lot higher than an award for thirty million dollars. Which is why Conrad Murray is not a defendant.