A judge ruled Wednesday that former Clippers owner Donald Sterling will not have to testify due to medical reasons in the retrial of a lawsuit filed by a tenant who was forced to flee from a 2009 fire at an apartment building at 888 W. Knoll Drive that the billionaire owned.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Joanne O’Donnell said she was satisfied with a physician’s statement regarding the health of the 83-year-old real estate mogul that it potentially would be harmful to his health to have to take the stand in actress Robyn Cohen’s case. The judge told Cohen’s attorney, Brian Henri, that he could instead present to jurors the transcripts of Sterling’s deposition and his testimony during the first trial.
Henri argued that it was important for jurors to see Sterling’s demeanor on the stand given the “visible anger” he showed during his previous testimony and his shifting of blame for the fire to others. Sterling’s often bombastic deportment also was displayed while testifying in probate proceedings in 2014 concerning his opposition to his wife’s sale of the Clippers to former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer for $2 billion.
The judge told Henri he could have someone sit at the stand in place of Sterling and have the replacement witness try and emulate the attitude and behavior the businessman showed as a live witness.
Jury selection continues today.
In December 2012, the first jury found Sterling liable to Cohen for breach of contract, breach of the warranty of habitability and intentional infliction of emotional distress and awarded her $2.3 million in compensatory damages. The panel also found that Sterling and his employees at the West Hollywood property acted with malice toward Cohen, triggering a punitive damages phase of the trial in which she was awarded an additional $15 million.
Cohen said she lost most of her personal property in the Sept. 28, 2009, fire and maintained that the building had an inadequate fire detection system.
In 2013, Judge William MacLaughlin, who presided over the first trial, ordered a retrial on all issues, stating in a 19-page decision that there was insufficient evidence to show that Sterling deliberately caused emotional distress to Cohen before or after the fire.
The judge granted Sterling a post-trial judgment on Cohen’s claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress. He also found that the punitive damage award of $15 million was excessive, reducing the amount to $5.8 million and the overall award from $17.3 million to $8.1 million.
MacLaughlin declined to give Sterling a judgment on Cohen’s claim for breach of the implied warranty of habitability. Both sides appealed to the 2nd District Court of Appeal.
Sterling’s appeal asked for judgment in his favor on the punitive damages claim. His attorneys noted that $2 million of the $2.3 million in compensatory damages Cohen was awarded was to compensate her for her pain and suffering. But the appellate court panel found that the punitive damages issue also should be retried.
Cohen, who had a role in Wes Anderson’s comedy-drama “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” starring Bill Murray and Owen Wilson, lived for 10 years in the 54-unit Sterling-owned building at 888 W. Knoll Drive. She told jurors she stayed so long in part because it was under the city’s rent control ordinance.
Cohen maintained that hers was among 52 units in which warning horns connected to the main alarm were not working the day of the fire. She also alleged that none of the dozen smoke detectors throughout the building were functioning.
Kim Webster, a former cast member on “The West Wing,” and several other tenants also sued Sterling in January 2010, but settled with him before trial.