A jury on Tuesday awarded $15 million in punitive damages to an actress who said she lost most of her personal belongings and perhaps her ability to continue her career as a result of a fire in a West Hollywood apartment building owned by Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling.
The unanimous punitive damages award is on top of the $2.3 million in compensatory damages Sterling was ordered to pay to Robyn Cohen—bringing the total amount to $17.3 million.
A beaming Cohen glanced toward the jury when she heard their decision. One male member nodded to her and a female juror extended her hand as she left the jury box and congratulated Cohen. The actress' lawyers, Brian Henri and Melissa Yoon, then embraced their client.
"Today's verdict sends a clear message that all landlords need to take responsibility for the safety of their properties and the families who depend on fire alarm systems working properly," Henri said. "We hope that this verdict motivates all landlords to make safety the top priority."
Sterling's lawyer, Guy Gruppie, said he was not authorized to comment on the the NBA franchise owner's behalf.
After about two days of deliberations, the Los Angeles Superior Court jury on Monday found Sterling liable for breach of contract, breach of the warranty of habitability and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Of the compensatory damages award, the jury allocated $2 million to compensate Cohen for past and future emotional distress damages.
The panel also found that Sterling and his employees acted with malice toward Cohen, triggering the punitive damages phase of the trial.
Henri presented no witnesses but recommended an award of $10 million, saying the real estate mogul earns $170 million in rents from 130 buildings he owns throughout Southern California.
"The only thing he cares about is money," Henri said.
Gruppie argued that no additional money should be awarded.
In her final argument last Thursday, Yoon said the 79-year-old Sterling has never taken responsibility for not having a fully functioning fire detection system at the time of the Sept. 28, 2009, blaze.
"Mr. Sterling sought to blame anyone but himself," Yoon said.
She played a video deposition in which the billionaire, when asked about the deficiencies, replied, "So what?"
Gruppie countered that Cohen and the other 14 residents present when the fire began got out safely. He also said the actress' attorneys exaggerated 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—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 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, who is now a Studio City resident, lived for 10 years in Sterling's 54-unit 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.
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 tenant's apartment.
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 12 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.