Donald Sterling. Photo via YouTube
Donald Sterling. Photo via YouTube

Nearly a decade after a fire broke out at a West Hollywood apartment building owned by Donald Sterling and forced an actress out of her unit in 2009 due to what she said was a faulty alarm system, the former Clippers owner Thursday was ordered to pay the woman $1.54 million in damages.

A Los Angeles Superior Court jury deliberated for several days before reaching its verdict in favor of Robyn Cohen, who is perhaps best known for her role in Wes Anderson’s “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.” Her claims were for negligence, breach of contract and breach of the warranty of habitability. She also is seeking punitive damages.

An emotional Cohen smiled as she expressed her happiness with the verdict, noting that it was achieved after an eight-year wait.

This was the second trial of Cohen’s negligence suit against Sterling. The first ended in December 2012 with a $17.3 million judgment in favor of Cohen, but Judge William MacLaughlin ordered a new trial on all issues in 2013.

“It’s totally unfair,” said Sterling’s wife, Shelly Sterling, after the verdict. “They don’t know the facts.”

Shelly Sterling attended the trial daily, buy her real estate mogul husband did not appear or testify. The jury foreman said it would not likely have made any difference if Sterling took the stand.

Shelly Sterling said her husband’s testimony would have been irrelevant because she is in charge of the couple’s vast property holdings and not her spouse. Donald Sterling called his wife a “pig” during 2014 probate proceedings concerning her successful attempt to sell the Clippers to Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer for $2 billion over her husband’s objections.

The 83-year-old Sterling’s attorney, Robert Platt, said during final arguments that “not one penny of damage” was caused to Cohen by the alarm system. He said Cohen got out safely, no other tenants were hurt and that the blaze was caused by the unanticipated malfunction of a heater fan in another resident’s unit.

“It’s unfortunate in life that accidents happen,” Platt said.

Platt said that despite Cohen’s claims that the alarm sound was only faint, others said they could hear the bells loudly, including the on-site manager, Lauricia Bustamante. He said she recalled seeing one alarm vibrating on the wall.

The first trial award included $15 million in punitive damages. But Judge Joanne O’Donnell, who presided over the retrial, ruled that Cohen’s lawyers did not present clear and convincing evidence during trial that Cohen was entitled to punitive damages.

The fire occurred Sept. 28, 2009, in the 54-unit apartment building owned by Sterling at 888 W. Knoll Drive. Cohen alleged Sterling failed to keep the building in a habitable condition and that the alarm system was not operating properly at the time of the fire, which Henri said was caused by the failure of an electrical wire above one of the first floor units.

Kim Webster, a cast member of “The West Wing,” also lived in the building. She and several other tenants also sued Sterling in January 2010, but settled with him before the first trial.

Henri told jurors that Cohen likely saved Webster’s life because Webster was asleep when the fire started.

“Without Ms. Cohen, it’s very foreseeable that she’s dead,” Henri said.

According to Henri, Cohen heard only a faint noise that sounded like an elevator call button before she went into the hallway and found it filled with smoke. She lost her furniture and nearly everything else from water damage, yet was offered no relocation assistance from management, nor was she immediately given back her security deposit, he said.

Henri also said Bustamante demanded she pay rent for the month after the fire — even though the city had declared her unit uninhabitable — or she could face eviction. Henri said Bustamante told Cohen to move into another unit in the building.

Sterling bought the building in 2000.

–City News Service

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