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Michael Jackson: in life he was the King of Pop – in death could he have set a legal precedent?

He’s out of my life. Photo Dean

In a quite extraordinary French legal judgement, five Michael Jackson fans have successfully sued the former King of Pop’s doctor for the impact his part in Jackson’s death had on their own lives. The judgement against Jackson’s personal physician, Conrad Murray, was that he should pay the five plaintiffs the princely sum of €1 each due to the trauma they felt as a result of Jackson’s death.

Jackson’s sudden death had shocked the world in 2009, with the first reports emanating with TMZ, the celebrity news website and quickly spreading. His demise was a global media event and many fans refused to believe the coverage at first. Web traffic was recorded at some 20% higher than average, while around 15% of all Twitter posts mentioned Jackson that day, dwarfing that year’s other discussion points (such as the 5% which discussed the flu pandemic that made headlines a few months earlier).

Jackson died from a heart attack following a drug overdose, specifically acute propofol and benzodiazepine intoxication. Murray later claimed to have found Jackson at home, not breathing and with a barely detectable pulse. Murray administered CPR on Jackson but without ever resuscitating him. A coroner would subsequently conclude that Jackson’s death was homicide. It emerged that, in the hours before his death, Jackson had been administered a cocktail of painkillers and anti-anxiety medication. As a result, Murray was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in 2011 and served two years of his four year prison sentence.

Emotional distress

Three years later, another court has found against Murray over Jackson’s death, although the sentence carries a somewhat less onerous burden than the retraction of his liberty. However, the punishment was not the point of this case. This was a symbolic verdict, recognising that the fans had been caused emotional distress. There had originally been 34 plaintiffs drawn from a group known as the Michael Jackson Community appearing at the court in Orléans, but the judge eventually found in favour of two from France, two from Switzerland and one from Belgium. Their lawyer, Emmanuel Ludot, stated: “As far as I know, this is the first time in the world that the notion of emotional damage in connection with a pop star has been recognised”.

Law professor, Philippe Brun of Savoy University, has been quoted as saying that the sentence would be difficult to uphold on appeal: “If this ruling is appealed, I doubt it could withstand scrutiny because there is a contradiction between suffering emotional damage and the symbolic nature of the allocated sum”.

This is probably true and, as such, reflects the bemused reactions on social media and news outlet comment pages highlighting that most people see this as a frivolous case and somewhat ridiculous in its content as its sentence. As one commenter on the Guardian’s Comment is Free put it: “What the actual fuck. These people are morons. I’m emotionally damaged from reading about these idiots”.

Zemiology and the criminalising of harm

Despite such incredulity and ridicule, the verdict could be seen as important for what the manner in which it legitimises emotional distress as a viable wrong. To understand this, it is important to pay heed to the little-known academic perspective known as zemiology: the study of avoidable harms. The name comes from the Greek, zemia – meaning harm or damage – and has emerged as a challenge to conventional ways of understanding crime as conceptualised by the state, scholars and the general public.

Those who support the need for legal solutions for zemiology insist that we need to redefine what is constituted by a crime. Crime is seen as nothing more than a construct, based on social judgements meaning that there are no central properties relating to some essential notion of criminality. As such, what a crime is will vary across time and space. Fundamentally, dominant interpretations of crime entail that many of the crimes which are prosecuted cause minimal harm to victims, if they cause any harm at all.

For zemiology’s foremost advocates, Hillyard and Tombs, “The definitions of crime in the criminal law do not reflect the only or the most dangerous of antisocial behaviours.” They believe that many incidents or events which cause harm are either not legislated as part of the criminal law or are so categorised will generally be ignored or dismissed without recourse to the law. They identify various types of harm, chiefly compromising social harm (including impediments to development and personal growth), physical harm (such as causing illness or disease) and financial harm (issues such as misappropriation of funds or undue cost burdens). The authors also put forward the idea of psychological harm.

The latter harm covers any psychological or emotional distress arising from events and behaviours outside of an individual’s control. Though Jackson’s fans were not engaged in a criminal trial, their verdict has potential significance in highlighting the truth of the upset they felt as a result of Murray’s actions. Even though the harm was not caused directly to them, and despite there being no evidence of forethought in Murray’s mind that he could hurt Jackson’s fans in his actions, he has been recognised as needing to be held responsible for harming the lives of these devoted fans.

This intangible harm was duly reflected in the symbolic sentence: €1 was a token amount to identify the principle rather than seek to remedy the wrong. More so, the plaintiffs wanted to bring this court case so that they might be recognised as victims, as having suffered a loss. Their main motivation was that gaining this victim status might help them gain access to Jackson’s grave, which is closed to members of the general public.

This raises significant questions about who is entitled to feel what and who has to take responsibility for those feelings. Should the fans suck it up and work through their own grief at the loss of their hero? Or, should they be able to blame someone for ending the life of a man who became an icon and meant so much to so many millions of people across the world?

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