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Actress Robyn Cohen, Now a Studio City Resident, Wins $15 Mil After Fire

Cohen lost almost everything and has relocated locally.

By BILL HETHERMAN

A jury awarded $15 million in punitive damages to an actress who said she lost most of her personal belongings and perhaps her ability to continue her career as a result of a fire in a West Hollywood apartment building owned by Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling.

The unanimous punitive damages award is on top of the $2.3 million in compensatory damages Sterling was ordered to pay to Robyn Cohen -- bringing the total amount to $17.3 million.

A beaming Cohen glanced toward the jury when she heard their decision. One male member nodded to her and a female juror, as she left the jury box, extended her hand and congratulated Cohen. The actress' lawyers, Brian Henri and Melissa Yoon, then embraced their client.

"Today's verdict sends a clear message that all landlords need to take responsibility for the safety of their properties and the families who depend on fire alarm systems working properly," Henri said. "We hope that this verdict motivates all landlords to make safety the top priority."

Sterling's lawyer, Guy Gruppie, said he was not authorized to comment on the the NBA franchise owner's behalf.

After about two days of deliberations, the Los Angeles Superior Court jury on Monday found Sterling liable for breach of contract, breach of the warranty of habitability and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Of the compensatory damages award, the jury allocated $2 million to compensate Cohen for past and future emotional distress damages.

The panel also found that Sterling and his employees acted with malice toward Cohen, triggering the punitive damages phase of the trial.

Henri presented no witnesses but recommended an award of $10 million, saying the real estate mogul earns $170 million in rents from 130 buildings he owns throughout Southern California.

"The only thing he cares about is money," Henri said.

Gruppie argued that no additional money should be awarded.

In her final argument last Thursday, Yoon said the 79-year-old Sterling has never taken responsibility for not having a fully functioning fire detection system at the time of the Sept. 28, 2009, blaze.

"Mr. Sterling sought to blame anyone but himself," Yoon said.

She played a video deposition in which the billionaire, when asked about the deficiencies, replied, "So what?"

Gruppie countered that Cohen and the other 14 residents present when the fire began got out safely. He also said the actress' attorneys exaggerated the extent of her trauma by citing the testimony of a psychiatrist who said she one day might have to stop working as an actress because post-traumatic stress disorder she developed after the fire escalated into a permanent bipolar condition.

Gruppie said Cohen -- who's perhaps best known for her topless role in Wes Anderson's comedy-drama "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou," which starred Bill Murray, Owen Wilson and Anjelica Huston -- has performed recently in a play, made television guest appearances on shows like "NCIS" and done a string of Chevrolet commercials.

"She is able to work and she is doing well," Gruppie said. "The truth is Miss Cohen's career is thriving."

Cohen, who is now a Studio City resident, 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 Sterling and his company, Beverly Hills Properties, failed to keep the building in a safe condition and that the alarm system was not operating properly at the time of the fire, which was caused by an electrical problem in a heater fan in another unit.

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 12 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.

Cohen testified she was in her second floor apartment reading scripts for her upcoming role in the Starz production "Gravity" when she heard a strange sound that prompted her to go to the hallway, where she saw smoke. She said she summoned a sleeping Webster to leave, took a smoke-filled elevator downstairs and called 911.

Cohen said she was told by the building manager to pay the next month's rent after the fire or face eviction and have her credit damaged, but she said she refused. She also said she declined an offer to move into another unit because she did not know if she would be safe if another fire occurred.

Cohen said she was never given back her security deposit.

Yoon told jurors the psychiatrist determined that along with possibly curtailing Cohen's acting career, her bipolar state has left the once-outgoing woman disinterested in personal relationships.

"She's likely not going to have a husband and family," Yoon said.

Sterling bought the building about a decade ago, but delegated its operations to the staff and the resident managers, according to Gruppie. He said the fire detection system worked well enough that day to alert the building manager, who heard a loud bell that prompted her to rush to the tenants' apartments to get them to leave.

But Cohen's attorneys maintained Sterling and his staff did not have regular inspections of the fire and smoke detection systems.

Yvette Kaplan December 20, 2012 at 05:09 PM
I don't know, this doesn't sound right. Sounds strangely excessive and frankly insane given the claims and conflicting information. I'm sure Robyn's a lovely person but this doesn't make me celebrate the justice system....
I also sued Donald Sterling. I was always sick and there was mold in my unit. I had constant leaks in my bathroom and floods. They would not change carpet or take care of leaks properly. I also was threatened with paying rent, dropping suit or evicted, the sent a outside dumb lawyer to play and add to my legal expenses. I had to drop suit. Sterling is a major con artist, a lawyer, billionaire, and a major slum lord. I live for years in Beverly Hills in his building. I got nothing to drop case. He uses deceptive advertising and he is honored yearly as a philanthropist and as a achieved man. It sickens me!
Susanne May 19, 2013 at 10:11 PM
This woman has pulled off some horrible and unethical actions. Robyn Cohen might be worse than Donald Sterling, and she doesn't deserve this money. What a evil manipulator! It's known in the advertising world that she had an affair with the Creative Director of her Chevy campaign, Ralph Watson. He was married and had four children at the time of the affair. Now the kids have a broken home for the rest of their lives because of her. Real class act this one is.
gayle January 22, 2014 at 05:18 PM
The size of the award was, I am sure, based partly on the fact that Mr. Sterling is a multi-billionaire with thousands of apartments that had a long history of not having fire alarms or protection; yet he stated under oath, even as the proceedings were underway: "So what ?" . Similarly, Mercedes-Benz was sued for selling one car that had been in an accident, then repainted, then sold as new. They had to pay millions of dollars, also for the purpose of sending a message that had a better chance of being heard.

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