An actress lost most of her personal belongings and perhaps her ability to continue her career after a fire in a West Hollywood apartment building owned by Donald Sterling and is entitled to nearly $400,000 in damages for out-of-pocket expenses, her attorney told a jury Thursday.
Lawyer Melissa Yoon, in her final argument to a Los Angeles Superior Court jury in the trial of Robyn Cohen's lawsuit, also said her client deserves additional amounts of money for emotional distress and is entitled to punitive damages.
She said the Clippers owner has never taken responsibility for not having a fully functioning fire detection system when the blaze occurred on Sept. 28, 2009.
"Mr. Sterling sought to blame anyone but himself," Yoon said.
She played a video deposition in which the 79-year-old billionaire, when asked about the deficiencies, replied, "So what?"
But defense attorney Guy Gruppie said Cohen and the other 14 residents present when the fire began got out safely and no one was hurt or killed. He also said the actress' attorneys are exaggerating the extent of her trauma by citing the testimony of a psychiatrist who said she one day might have to stop working as an actress because post-traumatic stress disorder she developed after the fire escalated into a permanent bipolar condition.
Gruppie said Cohen has performed recently in a play, made television guest appearances and has 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's allegations include breach of contract, negligence, breach of the warranty of habitability and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
She lived for 10 years in the 54-unit Sterling-owned building at 888 West Knoll Drive and told jurors she stayed so long in part because it was under the city's rent control ordinance. The building is one of about 130 owned by the real estate mogul in Southern California, according to trial testimony.
Cohen alleges 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 tenant's apartment.
Cohen maintains 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 alleges that none of the 12 smoke detectors throughout the building were functioning.
Kim Webster, a former cast member on The West Wing, was a neighbor of Cohen 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.
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 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 $300 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.
Cohen is perhaps best known for being frequently topless in Wes Anderson's comedy-drama The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, which starred Bill Murray, Owen Wilson and Anjelica Huston.
Sterling bought the building in 2000 but delegated its operations to his management company's 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 maintain Sterling and his staff did not have regular inspections of the fire and smoke detection systems.