LOS ANGELES (AP) — Workers for corporations owned by Michael Jackson had no legal obligation to protect children from the pop star, an attorney told an appeals court Wednesday.
Jackson estate lawyer Jonathan Steinsapir pushed back against a tentative decision by California’s 2nd District Court of Appeal, which said it was inclined to revive previously dismissed lawsuits from two men who allege Jackson sexually abused them for years when they were boys.
The court’s reasoning, Steinsapir argued, “would require low-level employees to confront their supervisor and call them pedophiles.”
Holly Boyer, an attorney for plaintiffs Wade Robson and James Safechuck, said workers ought to have that responsibility.
“We do require that employees of the entity take those steps, because what we are talking about is the sexual abuse of children,” Boyer told the three-judge panel in the videoconference hearing. “What we are talking about here is 7- and 10-year-old children who are entirely ill-equipped to protect themselves from their mentor, Michael Jackson.”
Boyer added that the boys “were left alone in this lion’s den by the defendant’s employees. An affirmative duty to protect and to warn is correct.”
Jackson died in 2009. Robson filed suit in 2013, and Safechuck sued the following year. The two men became more widely known for telling their stories in the 2019 HBO documentary “ Leaving Neverland.”
A judge who dismissed the suits in 2021 found that that MJJ Productions Inc. and MJJ Ventures Inc., two corporations for which Jackson was the sole owner and lone shareholder, could not be expected to function like the Boy Scouts or a church where a child in their care could expect their protection.
Steinsapir said evidence that has been gathered in the cases, which have not reach trial, showed that the parents had no expectation of Jackson’s employees acting as monitors. He said a deposition from Robson’s mother showed she did not even know the corporations existed when she first brought her 7-year-old son into the pop star’s presence.
“They were not looking to Michael Jackson’s companies for protection from Michael Jackson,” Steinsapir said.
Steinsapir said the assertion in the lawsuit and the court’s tentative decision that the corporations had engaged in negligent hiring was absurd when the person doing the hiring was the alleged offender.
“Any person that might be prone to criminal tendency has a duty not to hire himself?” Steinsapir said.
The hearing dealt only with the legal obligations of companies, not the truth of the men’s allegations, but Steinsapir frequently called them both unproven and untrue.
Robson, now a 40-year-old choreographer, met Jackson when he was 5 years old. He went on to appear in three Jackson music videos.
His lawsuit alleged that Jackson molested him over a seven-year period.
Safechuck, now 45, said in his suit that he was 9 when he met Jackson while filming a Pepsi commercial. He said Jackson called him often and lavished him with gifts before moving on to a series of incidents of sexual abuse.
The Associated Press does not typically name people who say they were victims of sexual abuse. But Robson and Safechuck have come forward and approved of the use of their identities.
The men’s lawsuits have already bounced back from a 2017 dismissal, when a judge threw them out for being beyond the statute of limitations. A new California law that temporarily broadened the scope of sexual abuse cases led the appeals court to restore them. Jackson’s personal estate — the assets he left after his death — was thrown out as a defendant in 2015.
The Jackson estate has adamantly and repeatedly denied that he abused either of the boys, and has emphasized that Robson testified at Jackson’s 2005 criminal trial, where Jackson was acquitted, that he had not been abused, and Safechuck said the same to authorities.
The three judges hearing the case Wednesday did not make an immediate ruling.
Justice John Wiley, said it “seems to me these corporations were in an excellent position to prevent these injuries.” They could have required a chaperone to be present for the children for example, Wiley said.
Steinsapir, who emphasized that the alleged molestations took place in Jackson’s home, not in workplaces, replied, “Could my law firm tell me who I’m allowed to be with in my own home?”
Boyer, the plaintiffs’ attorney, responded that “these houses were staffed by Jackson’s employees. They enacted policies and procedures to facilitate Jackson being alone with these children.”