Prospective jurors in the retrial of a lawsuit filed by a tenant who was forced to flee from a 2009 fire at a West Hollywood apartment building owned by Donald Sterling recalled with vivid memories Monday the billionaire’s racially charged comments that surfaced in secret recordings in 2014.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Joanne O’Donnell and attorneys for the real estate mogul and actress Robyn Cohen questioned a diverse section of men and women who answered a jury questionnaire saying they had reservations about serving on a panel in a case involving the former Clippers owner. Each of those persons were questioned individually.
Sterling’s remarks about blacks surfaced in secret recordings made of him when in the company of a former female companion, V. Stiviano. Sterling is heard criticizing Stiviano for associating with blacks in public and warning her not to attend Clippers games with them. The conversation stemmed from Sterling’s unhappiness with Stiviano for having her photo taken with former Lakers great Magic Johnson.
Most of the jurors interviewed said they obtained their information about Sterling’s comments through the media.
“I feel that the man was a racist,” a middle-aged black man said. “I’ve been affected by racism myself.”
The juror also criticized Sterling for his treatment of former Clippers general manager Elgin Baylor and said he believed racism was at the root of it because Baylor was black. Baylor, who sued the Clippers for age discrimination and lost, departed from the team in 2008 after 22 years at the helm.
“I think every individual deserves a fair trial, but in this situation I don’t think I can be fair,” the juror said.
He said he would likely feel more favorable about Cohen’s side of the case — she says she lost most of her personal property in the Sept. 28, 2009, fire and maintains that the building had an inadequate fire detection system — even though he does not know her.
The man also said he was aware of allegations by tenants concerning apartment buildings owned by Sterling.
“To me, he’s the perfect definition of a slumlord,” the man said.
In December 2012, the first jury found Sterling liable to Cohen for breach of contract, breach of the warranty of habitability and intentional infliction of emotional distress and awarded her $2.3 million in compensatory damages. The panel also found that Sterling and his employees at the West Hollywood property acted with malice toward Cohen, triggering a punitive damages phase of the trial in which she was awarded an additional $15 million.
In 2013, Judge William MacLaughlin, who presided over the first trial, ordered a retrial on all issues, stating in a 19-page decision that there was insufficient evidence to show that Sterling deliberately caused emotional distress to Cohen before or after the fire. The emotional distress claim is no longer part of Cohen’s case.
Another prospective juror, a middle-aged white woman, called Sterling a “racist” and said she has strong views about Sterling.
“I have an opinion that he is not a good person,” the woman said. “It was all over the news about what happened.”
The juror works at Cal State Los Angeles, where Sterling is an alumnus, and said that the school had to give back a donation he made because of his comments about blacks.
However, the woman said she could be impartial if chosen to serve on the jury.
A middle-aged Latina who said her best friend is black said she was disturbed by what was reported about Sterling’s comments.
“I just find him to be quite a bit racist,” she said. “There is so much hate in this world already.”
Sitting about 30 feet from Sterling’s wife, Shelly, the woman said she also found it objectionable that the billionaire had a relationship with Stiviano, who she referred to as his “mistress.”
A young Latino man questioned said he would “most likely be biased” if picked.
“I don’t think it would be fair to him for me to be in this trial,” he said.
The juror said he once had his photo taken with Sterling when he still owned the Clippers and before the racism allegations surfaced.
A middle-aged Latino who called himself “a huge sports fan” said he was disturbed by media accounts of Sterling’s “handling of people of color” and reports that the former team owner did not talk with some of his players.
“It didn’t sit well with me,” he said.
However, he said that on the positive side, he had heard about Sterling’s financial donations to schools.
A milddle-aged white man was blunt about his feelings.
“I’m not fond of Mr. Sterling,” he said.
A middle-aged black man who said he would “be starting at zero just to get to zero” when judging Sterling also said he could not say with certainty if the media accounts of the recordings were entirely accurate. He said he believed Sterling’s main motivation as the Clippers owner was to make money.
None of the jurors questioned said they had viewed Anderson Cooper’s interview with Sterling on CNN, in which the businessman denied he was a racist and asked for forgiveness.
Cohen, who had a role in Wes Anderson’s comedy-drama “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” starring Bill Murray and Owen Wilson, lived for 10 years in the 54-unit Sterling-owned building at 888 W. Knoll Drive. She told jurors she stayed so long in part because it was under the city’s rent control ordinance.
Cohen maintainsthat hers 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 dozen 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 the first trial.
In April 2014, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver announced that because of his racial comments, Sterling had been banned from the league for life and fined $2.5 million, the maximum fine allowed by the NBA constitution. The team was sold later that year to former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer for $2 billion.
Sterling, now, 83, testified during the first trial of Cohen’s lawsuit, but has been excused from doing so in the retrial because of medical reasons.
–City News Service
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