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Actress Wants $400K Plus Punitive Damages from Clippers Owner

Robyn Cohen claims she suffered permanent psychological damage resulting from a Weho apartment fire, which she alleges happened because of billionaire Donald Sterling's negligence.

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.

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Chloe Ross December 14, 2012 at 07:38 PM
I have lived through an apartment fire in which I lost EVERYTHING I owned. This included pets, personal items that were irreplacable and my home. I don't think Ms. Cohen's requests are unreasonable or exaggerated. The fire I survived was never blamed on anyone because it was most likely an accident but this one sounds like a case of owner neglect - and if that is the fact of the matter, Mr. Sterling needs to step up and accept his own culpability. I assure you that no amount of money, large or small will restore what has been lost but it may serve as a warning to other property owners that this ownership has responsibility and consequences. I speak from sad and well-remembereed experience.
Ali December 15, 2012 at 12:59 AM
I'm sorry, but this woman is not bright. She took a smoke filled elevator down and THEN called 911? It seems her career has not been hurt to this point, 3 years after the fire. She deserves to be reimbursed for her losses from the fire for sure. But punitive damages I am not so sure about. She should have settled like the other tenants. It seems to me she is pursuing this for publicity more than anything. Of course, Mr. Sterling is ultimately culpable, but he is known for a hands off policy. Didn't the individual units have smoke alarms, as per State law? Did she have fresh batteries in hers? That is her responsibility. I think the shrink she hired is exaggerating. She wouldn't be able to go out on auditions if she was as damaged as the shrink says. "She's likely not going to have a husband and family," Yoon said." - Oh please.
long time resident December 15, 2012 at 03:22 AM
Have anybody heard about Tenant's Insurance??? I have one for 3 decades, since I live in an apartment and it is my responsibility to insure my stuff!!!!
joninla December 17, 2012 at 06:29 AM
Well you may have lived in weho for a "long time" but not everybody knows about renters insurance, but everybody has watched enough TV to think they can sue anyone, anytime and for whatever they stupidly may have chosen not to do to protect their personal property. (ie Renters Insurance).
joninla December 17, 2012 at 06:31 AM
ACTUALLY GETTING INTO THE ELEVATOR (OR ANY ELEVATOR) IN A FIRE IS ONE CERTAINTY OF WHAT NOT TO DO TO ESCAPE A FIRE IN A BUILDING.
gayle December 18, 2012 at 10:48 PM
When a billionairre landlord is discussing the fact that his alarm system is not working, and then says "so what", then that is dangerous for the many thousands of tenants in his buildings. The jury felt this award might get his attention and perhaps get this small city of people protected, and possibly save lives and property. Secondly, if you have the funds to self insure your possessions, you probably save money in the long run by not buying renters insurance. The best proof of this is that on average the insurance companies must take in significantly more premiums than they pay out in damages, since they must pay their overhead and their stockholders. If you are low risk and can self insure and then you lose your possessions and it is your fault or nobody's fault, then you are out the money. If you lose your possessions and it is someone else's fault, then the other person, or his insurance pays for it. Finally, getting into an elevator in this situation is not good, However while under stress and trying to get friends out of danger, people who have not been in such life endangering situations frequently do things that others might believe unwise. Also we don't know what was going on at and around the staircase. I credit her with being the first to realize there was a problem, that her first choice was to try to alert others, and for enduring this effort since 2009 so that the jury could send a message that a city of unprotected people must now be protected better.
amc December 18, 2012 at 11:49 PM
When a billionairre landlord is discussing the fact that his alarm system is not working, and then says "so what", then that is dangerous for the many thousands of tenants in his buildings. The jury felt this award might get his attention and perhaps get this small city of people protected, and possibly save lives and property. Secondly, if you have the funds to self insure your possessions, you probably save money in the long run by not buying renters insurance. The best proof of this is that on average the insurance companies must take in significantly more premiums than they pay out in damages, since they must pay their overhead and their stockholders. If you are low risk and can self insure and then you lose your possessions and it is your fault or nobody's fault, then you are out the money. If you lose your possessions and it is someone else's fault, then the other person, or his insurance pays for it. Finally, getting into an elevator in this situation is not good, However while under stress and trying to get friends out of danger, people who have not been in such life endangering situations frequently do things that others might believe unwise. Also we don't know what was going on at and around the staircase. I credit her with being the first to realize there was a problem, that her first choice was to try to alert others, and for enduring this effort since 2009 so that the jury could send a message that a city of unprotected people must now be protected better.

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