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More Sterling Trouble: Now It's a Lawsuit Stemming from a Fire at One of His Properties

While a jury awarded an actress $17.3 million to compensate for the emotional distress the Weho fire caused, a judge reduced it post-trial. Now it's all on appeal.

More Sterling Trouble: Now It's a Lawsuit Stemming from a Fire at One of His Properties

By BILL HETHERMAN
City News Service

A state appeals court is mulling issues raised by an actress and Clippers owner Donald Sterling after a judge overturned a jury's verdict directing the Clippers owner to pay her $17.3 million stemming from a fire at one of his apartment buildings.

In December 2012, a Los Angeles Superior Court jury found Beverly Hills resident Sterling liable to Robyn 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.

A three-justice panel of the 2nd District Court of Appeal has received the initial briefs filed by lawyers for Cohen and Sterling. The appeals stem from a February 2013 post-trial ruling by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William MacLaughlin. He 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 court finds that the post-fire conduct does not rise to the level of outrageous conduct contemplated by that element of intentional infliction of emotional distress," the judge wrote. "As tasteless and inconsiderate as it may have been, it simply cannot be said that it rose to the level of being so outrageous as to exceed all bounds of that usually tolerated in a civilized society."

MacLaughlin also said there was no evidence that Sterling meant to cause Cohen or any other tenant emotional distress by failing to maintain the fire system before the blaze.

The judge granted Sterling judgment after trial on Cohen's claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress.  He also found that 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 judgment on Cohen's claim for a breach of the implied warranty of habitability. However, his order for a new trial could be interpreted to state that a new jury will have to determine liability and any possible damages all over again, said Cohen's attorney, Mark Mosier.

Cohen is asking that the original verdict be reinstated by the Court of Appeal with a finding that the punitive damages award was not excessive, Mosier said.

In their court papers, Cohen's attorneys say the $15 million awarded Cohen to punish Sterling was within reason.

"Sterling had notice that his failure to maintain an operable fire alarm system in a 54-unit apartment building could result in damages in the tens of millions of dollars," Cohen's lawyers state in their court papers.

Sterling's appeal is more complex, but generally asks for judgment in his favor on the punitive damages claim. His attorneys note that $2 million of the $2.3 million in compensatory damages Cohen was awarded was to compensate her for her pain and suffering.

"Sterling has already been punished by the sizable (pain and suffering) award to Cohen," Sterling's lawyers state in their court papers.

Cohen is perhaps best known for her topless role in Wes Anderson's comedy-drama "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou," which starred Bill Murray, Owen Wilson and Anjelica Huston.

She lived for 10 years in the 54-unit Sterling-owned building at 888 W. Knoll Drive and told jurors she stayed so long in part because it was under the city's rent control ordinance.

Cohen maintained that her unit 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.

The Court of Appeal has not yet set a date to hear oral arguments on the appeals by Cohen and Sterling.

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