Court of Appeals Affirms Decision that Concert Promotor is Not Liable for Negligence in Death of Michael Jackson
The long legal battle over the death of Michael Jackson is finally over after the California Court of Appeals rejected the Jackson family’s arguments that AEG Live, LLC (AEG) was responsible for the singer’s wrongful death. The family blamed the concert promoter for negligently hiring Dr. Conrad Murray, who was convicted of involuntary manslaughter after Michael Jackson died of an acute propofol overdose.
AEG was in charge of the This Is It tour, which was supposed to be Michael’s comeback tour. The Jackson family blamed the concert promoter for hiring Dr. Murray, and sought damages in a wrongful death case.
The case went to trial in 2013, where a jury found AEG not responsible for Michael’s death. The Jackson family appealed, arguing that AEG had negligently hired Dr. Murray, and was vicariously liable for the doctor’s actions as the doctor’s employer.
No Foreseeable Negligence
An employer can be liable for negligent hiring when the employer knew or should have known that the person they were hiring was unfit for the job or incompetent to perform a certain task. The Court of Appeals found that AEG was not negligent in hiring Dr. Murray because he was qualified to be a doctor (as evidenced by multiple medical licenses) and his actions in providing high doses of anesthetics were not foreseeable.
AEG could not have known or expected that a doctor charged with keeping a patient healthy on tour would use an extremely powerful and dangerous sedative to help him sleep. Even if AEG had pressured Murray to keep Michael healthy enough to perform, they could not have reasonably believed that their pressure would lead Murray to putting his patient’s health and life at risk. His actions were so far outside the normal standard of care that the concert promoter could not be held responsible for the doctor’s actions.
Independent Contractor Means No Liability for AEG
The Jacksons also argued that AEG had the ability to control and supervise Dr. Murray, which meant that the company could be liable for Murray’s actions. Under the legal doctrine of respondeat superior, an employer is vicariously responsible for the wrongdoing of employees.
However, both the trial court and the Court of Appeals agreed that Murray was an independent contractor, not an employee. Because he was an independent contractor, the doctrine did not apply and there was no vicarious liability.
Murray was considered an independent contractor because AEG had no right to control his methods of treatment. Murray’s medical training and Michael’s decisions about his own care controlled what treatment Michael received. AEG had no say in when Michael received treatment, what type of treatment he received, what medical equipment Dr. Murray used to treat him, or the dosages or types of medications prescribed.
AEG contracted with Murray only for results—his job was to keep Michael healthy and able to perform on tour. How he accomplished that was not something that AEG had the ability to supervise. As such, Murray was an independent contractor and not an employee.
Are Your Employees Independent Contractors?
Similarly to the music industry, many film producers attempt to classify their employees as independent contractors. Though it may be cheaper and less paperwork to give workers 1099 forms rather than put them on payroll, the decision to misclassify a worker as an independent contractor can lead to serious consequences.
It is illegal to misclassify employees as independent contractors. In addition to facing serious tax consequences and fines, there can be repercussions at both the state and federal levels, as well as possible criminal charges.
If you are unsure if a worker is an employee or an independent contractor, the general test is whether or not you have the right to control or direct what work will be done and how the work will be done. If you only care about the result of a project, and not the way that result is achieved, then it is likely that your worker is an independent contractor. However, if you control a worker’s day-to-day tasks, such as when the worker arrives and leaves the workplace, or how the work gets done during the day, then that person is usually an employee.
Misclassifying employees can lead to serious liability for producers and film studios. If you are unsure about how you should classify the talent or crew you hire, you should consult with an experienced entertainment law attorney. At Pierce Law Group LLP, we help entertainment industry professionals navigate complicated legal issues, and can help you and your employees stay on the right side of the law.
To learn more about important news in the film industry, sign up for the Pierce Law Group LLP’s free monthly newsletter. If you would like to schedule a free consultation with our office, call (310) 274-9191 today.
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