Judge Overturns Verdict Against Sterling in WeHo Apartment Fire Case

Donald Sterling
Donald Sterling.

A judge overturned a jury’s decision ordering Donald Sterling to pay $17.3 million to an actress who said she lost most of her personal belongings and perhaps her ability to continue her career due to a fire in a West Hollywood apartment building owned by the Los Angeles Clippers owner, court papers obtained on Tuesday, Feb. 19 show.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William MacLaughlin stated in a 19-page decision that his ruling is based in part on the lack of evidence that Sterling deliberately caused emotional distress to Robyn 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. MacLaughlin further concluded that the punitive damage award of $15 million was excessive and reduced the amount to $5.8 million. However, his order for a new trial means a new jury will have to determine liability and any possible damages all over again.

Cohen’s attorney, Brian Henri, had recommended $10 million in punitive damages. The same jury had awarded Cohen $2.3 million in compensatory damages. Henri could not be immediately reached, but Sterling attorney Guy Gruppie praised the decision.

“We are very gratified with Judge MacLaughlin’s ruling and are looking forward to a new trial on the remaining issues as a result of this ruling,” Gruppie said.

The attorneys presented their arguments before MacLaughlin on Feb. 8. He took the motions under submission before ruling Friday.

MacLaughlin scheduled a status conference for April 22.

On Dec. 17, after about two days of deliberations, the jury found Sterling liable for breach of contract, breach of the warranty of habitability and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The panel also found that Sterling and his employees acted with malice toward Cohen, triggering the punitive damages phase of the trial. Henri said Sterling, a billionaire real estate mogul who earns millions of dollars in rents from 130 buildings he owns throughout Southern California, could afford to pay $10 million.

Gruppie argued that no additional money should be awarded in punitive damages. He also told jurors that Cohen — who’s 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 — has performed recently in a play, made television guest appearances on shows like “NCIS” and done a string of Chevrolet commercials.

“She is able to work and she is doing well,” Gruppie said. “The truth is Miss Cohen’s career is thriving.”

Cohen, who is now a Studio City resident, 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 Sterling and his company, Beverly Hills Properties, failed to keep the building in a safe condition and that the alarm system was not operating properly at the time of the fire, which was caused by an electrical problem in a heater fan in another unit.

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.

Cohen testified she was in her second floor apartment reading scripts for her upcoming role in the Starz production “Gravity” when she heard a strange sound that prompted her to go to the hallway, where she saw smoke. She said she summoned a sleeping Webster to leave, took a smoke-filled elevator downstairs and called 911.

Cohen said she was told by the building manager to pay the next month’s rent after the fire or face eviction and have her credit damaged, but she said she refused. She also said she declined an offer to move into another unit because she did not know if she would be safe if another fire occurred.

Cohen said she was never given back her security deposit. Yoon told jurors the psychiatrist determined that along with possibly curtailing Cohen’s acting career, her bipolar state has left the once-outgoing woman disinterested in personal relationships.

“She’s likely not going to have a husband and family,” Yoon said.

Sterling bought the building about a decade ago, but delegated its operations to the staff and the resident managers, according to Gruppie. He said the fire detection system worked well enough that day to alert the building manager, who heard a loud bell that prompted her to rush to the tenants’ apartments to get them to leave.

But Cohen’s attorneys maintained Sterling and his staff did not have regular inspections of the fire and smoke detection systems.

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