One of two actresses who sued Donald Sterling after their West Hollywood apartments were destroyed in a 2009 fire told a jury Tuesday the blaze occurred as she prepared for a key career role and as she coped with her brother's battle against a brain tumor.
Robyn Cohen, perhaps best known for her often-topless role in Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, occasionally gave rambling testimony and fidgeted with a paper clip as she took the stand as the first witness in the trial of her civil suit against the Clippers owner, who has extensive real estate holdings in Los Angeles.
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, which was 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 Los Angeles Superior Court in January 2010, but settled with him before trial.
According to Cohen, 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.
She 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.
"I said, 'That seems stupid because I was not able to live in my apartment,'" said Cohen, who claimed Bustamante told her to move into another unit in the building.
"I was speechless, it didn't make any sense to me," Cohen said. "It smelled like hell, it was completely unsafe. I couldn't imagine sleeping on the floor."
But in his opening statement, Sterling's lawyer Guy Gruppie said 15 people were home at the time of the fire and all of them got out safely, thanks to fire doors that helped contain the flames and to the actions of Bustamante in helping to alert the tenants to get out.
Sterling bought the building in 2000 but delegated its operations to the staff and the resident managers, Gruppie said.
"He didn't have anything to do with this building other than owning it," Gruppie said.
Cohen's claims include breach of the warranty of habitability and intentional infliction of emotional distress. She also is seeking punitive damages.
According to Cohen, the night of the fire she was in her pajamas going over scripts for her upcoming role in the Starz comedy Gravity when she heard what sounded like a sound from an elevator call button. She said she went outside to see if she could help someone.
"I saw smoke pouring out of the light fixtures above me," she said.
Cohen said she went to Webster's apartment to tell her to leave, 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 testified she dialed 911 and waited for Webster and the other tenants to come outside, then spent about eight hours waiting while firefighters fought the blaze.
"There was general panic," she said. "Fire shot out of the rooftop."
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.
Cohen said that since the fire, she has focused only on her work and has dropped the possibilities of relationships, marriage and family.
"It [her career] seems to have become my only focus," she said. "I was interested in things I'm not interested in anymore."
She said she sees a psychologist to help her cope with her ordeals. She said that although she has had some television commercial opportunities, she does not consider 2012 to have been a successful year.