One of two actresses who sued Donald Sterling after their West Hollywood apartments were ravaged in a 2009 fire was preparing for a key career role and at the same time coping with her brother’s battle against a brain tumor, her attorney told a jury Thursday.
“She thought she was going to die (in the fire),” lawyer Brian Henri said of his client, Robyn Cohen, perhaps best known for her role in Wes Anderson’s “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.”
But attorney Robert Platt, in his opening statement on behalf of Sterling, said Cohen was never in any danger and actually “dilly-dallied” in the lobby before getting out of the structure.
“She didn’t leave the building, she stood there,” Platt said.
This is the second Los Angeles Superior Court trial of Cohen’s case against Sterling. The first ended in December 2012 with a $17.3 million judgment in favor of Cohen, but Judge William MacLaughlin ordered a new trial on all issues in 2013.
The fire occurred Sept. 28, 2009, in the 54-unit apartment building owned by Sterling at 888 W. Knoll Drive. Cohen alleges Sterling failed to keep the building in a habitable condition and that the alarm system was not operating properly at the time of the fire, caused by an electrical problem in a heater fan in another unit.
Kim Webster, a cast member of “The West Wing,” also lived in the building. She and several other tenants also sued Sterling in January 2010, but settled with him before the first trial.
According to Henri, Cohen heard only a faint noise that sounded like an elevator call button before she went into the hallway and found it filled with smoke. She lost her furniture and nearly everything else in the blaze, yet was offered no relocation assistance from management, nor was she given back her security deposit.
He also said the on-site manager, Lauricia Bustamante, demanded she pay rent for the month after the fire — even though the city had declared her unit uninhabitable — or she could face eviction.
Henri said Bustamante told Cohen to move into another unit in the building.
“I don’t want to do that, I don’t feel safe,” Cohen told Bustamante, according to Henri.
Henri played for jurors a portion of Sterling’s 2011 deposition in which he was asked about his rental units not having proper alarms.
“So what?,” Sterling replied.
But Platt said all of the tenants got out safely. Although the sound was not loud, the alarm bell alerted Cohen and the firefighters wrote in their reports that there was only light smoke on her floor, according to Platt.
Sterling bought the building in 2000, he said.
Cohen’s claims are for negligence, breach of contract and breach of the warranty of habitability. She also is seeking punitive damages.
According to Henri, on the night of the fire Cohen was in her pajamas going over scripts for her upcoming role in the Starz comedy “Gravity” when she heard the faint sounds and went into the hallway.
“I saw smoke pouring out of the light fixtures above me,” Cohen testified during the first trial.
She said she went to Webster’s apartment to tell her to leave.
Cohen said she then headed for the elevator, which also was filled with smoke.
“That was horrible, I didn’t think I would necessarily make it to the bottom,” she said.
Cohen said she later flew to New York for her role in “Gravity,” then spent what time she could with her brother in Massachusetts. She said she tried to remain optimistic, but he died in January 2010.