A California appeals court on Friday revived lawsuits from two men who allege Michael Jackson sexually abused them for years when they were boys.
A three-judge panel from California’s 2nd District Court of Appeal found that the lawsuits of Wade Robson and James Safechuck should not have been dismissed by a lower court, and that the men can validly claim that the two Jackson-owned corporations that were named as defendants in the cases had a responsibility to protect them. A new California law that temporarily broadened the scope of sexual abuse cases enabled the appeals court to restore them.
It's the second time the lawsuits — brought by Robson in 2013 and Safechuck the following year — have been brought back after dismissal. 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 the corporations, MJJ Productions Inc. and MJJ Ventures Inc., could not be expected to function like the Boy Scouts or a church where a child in their care could expect their protection. Jackson, who died in 2009, was the sole owner and only shareholder in the companies.
The higher court judges disagreed, writing that "a corporation that facilitates the sexual abuse of children by one of its employees is not excused from an affirmative duty to protect those children merely because it is solely owned by the perpetrator of the abuse."
They added that “it would be perverse to find no duty based on the corporate defendant having only one shareholder. And so we reverse the judgments entered for the corporations."
"Looking forward to a trial"
Jonathan Steinsapir, attorney for the Jackson estate, said they were "disappointed."
"Two distinguished trial judges repeatedly dismissed these cases on numerous occasions over the last decade because the law required it," Steinsapir said in an email to The Associated Press. "We remain fully confident that Michael is innocent of these allegations, which are contrary to all credible evidence and independent corroboration, and which were only first made years after Michael’s death by men motivated solely by money."
Vince Finaldi, an attorney for Robson and Safechuck, said in an email that they were "pleased but not surprised" that the court overturned the previous judge’s "incorrect rulings in these cases, which were against California law and would have set a dangerous precedent that endangered children throughout state and country. We eagerly look forward to a trial on the merits."
Steinsapir had argued for the defense in July that it does not make sense that employees would be legally required to stop the behavior of their boss.
"It would require low-level employees to confront their supervisor and call them pedophiles,” Steinsapir said.
Holly Boyer, another attorney for Robson and Safechuck, countered 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.”
Steinsapir said evidence that has been gathered in the cases, which have not reached trial, showed that the parents had no expectation of Jackson’s employees to act as monitors.
"They were not looking to Michael Jackson’s companies for protection from Michael Jackson,” the lawyer argued said.
But in a concurring opinion issued with Friday's decision, one of the panelists, Associate Justice John Shepard Wiley Jr., wrote that “to treat Jackson’s wholly-owned instruments as different from Jackson himself is to be mesmerized by abstractions. This is not an alter ego case. This is a same ego case.”
The judges did not rule on the truth of the allegations themselves. That will be the subject of a forthcoming jury trial in Los Angeles.
"We trust that the truth will ultimately prevail with Michael’s vindication yet again,” Steinsapir said Friday.
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 sexually abusing him.
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 had already bounced back from a 2017 dismissal, when Young threw them out for being beyond the statute of limitations. Jackson’s personal estate — the assets he left after his death — was thrown out as a defendant in 2015.