A judge is taking another look at a case involving ex-Clippers owner Donald Sterling and the billionaire’s apartment buildings.

Donald Sterling. Photo via YouTube
William MacLaughlin of Los Angeles Superior Court had overturned a jury’s verdict directing Sterling to pay an actress $17.3 million stemming from a fire at a Sterling building.

Tuesday, the judge said he’ll consider such issues as a change of venue for the retrial and a court-ordered psychiatric evaluation of the plaintiff.

MacLaughlin said that although he believes a state appeals court panel affirmed his ruling entirely and that additional discovery may not be as necessary in the second trial of Robyn Cohen’s case, he set a hearing for Sept. 25 to consider the scope of any such requests by either side.

The attorneys told MacLaughlin that they will try and resolve the discovery issues on their own before the hearing.

MacLaughlin set a retrial for next April 11, but said the date is flexible.

In March, a three-justice panel of the 2nd District Court of Appeal rejected arguments by attorneys for Cohen that MacLaughlin erred when he ordered a complete new trial of the case except for her claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress, which he dismissed.

Sterling’s attorney, Guy Gruppie, said he may file a motion to depose Cohen again and to also have a mental evaluation performed on her by an expert of the defense’s choosing.

Gruppie said after the hearing that the psychiatric assessment could help the defense determine the validity of Cohen’s claim that she suffered mental harm and irreparable damage from the fire.

Gruppie also said he may ask for a change of venue because of the difficulty in finding a jury pool that is not aware of the publicity surrounding Sterling in the last year, which included secret recordings of him making racial remarks, his unsuccessful battle with the NBA to remain the owner of the Clippers and his recent decision to divorce his wife, Shelly.

In its ruling, the appeals court panel found that a retrial of all issues except the emotional distress claim was necessary.

“If there are any doubts on the subject, a complete new trial must be held if one party would be prejudiced by a limited retrial,” Justice Paul Turner wrote in the 30-page, unanimous decision. “The damages verdict does not reveal what conduct the jury found was the basis for the compensatory and punitive damages awards.”

Nonetheless, Cohen’s attorney, Brian Henri, said he believes the issue of compensatory damages need not be retried. MacLaughlin sounded skeptical of Henri’s argument, but said he will consider it further if the lawyer files a motion.     

In December 2012, a 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.

Both sides appealed.

Cohen said she lost most of her personal property in the Sept. 28, 2009, fire and maintained that the building had an inadequate fire detection system.

Cohen is perhaps best known for her topless role in Wes Anderson’s comedy-drama “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” which starred Bill Murray and Owen Wilson. She lived for 10 years in the 54-unit Sterling-owned building at 888 W. Knoll Drive and told jurors she stayed so long in part because it was under the city’s rent control ordinance.

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 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 trial.

— City News Service

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