Two men who allege Michael Jackson sexually abused them when they were boys should not have had their cases dismissed, judges at a US court have said.
Wade Robson and James Safechuck, who claim Jackson abused them for years, will now be allowed to pursue lawsuits against companies owned by the late singer.
It’s the second time the lawsuits – which were brought by Robson in 2013 and Safechuck in 2014 – have been brought back after dismissal.
Both men detailed their claims of abuse in the 2019 HBO documentary Leaving Neverland.
Robson, now a 40-year-old choreographer, met Jackson when he was five 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 nine 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.
A three-judge panel from California’s 2nd District Court of Appeal has now found that their lawsuits should not have been dismissed by a lower court.
Legal row over duty to protect children
A judge who dismissed the suits in 2021 found that the corporations – MJJ Productions Inc and MJJ Ventures Inc – who were both named as defendants in the case, could not be expected to function like the Boy Scouts or a church where a child in their care could expect their protection.
But the latest decision means that Robson and Safechuck can now validly claim the corporations had a responsibility to protect them.
Jackson, who died in 2009, was the sole owner and only shareholder in both companies.
In their report, the higher court judges wrote: “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: “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.”
‘We remain fully confident Michael is innocent’
Jonathan Steinsapir, attorney for the Jackson estate, said they were “disappointed” by the decision.
Mr Steinsapir told The Associated Press: “Two distinguished trial judges repeatedly dismissed these cases on numerous occasions over the last decade because the law required it.
“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”.
Mr Steinsapir had argued for the defence in July that it does not make sense that employees would be legally required to stop the behaviour of their boss, saying: “It would require low-level employees to confront their supervisor and call them paedophiles.”
He also said the parents of the boys had not expected company staff to monitor Jackson’s actions.
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”.
In a concurring opinion issued with Friday’s decision, one of the panellists, Associate Justice John Shepard Wiley Jr, wrote that “to treat Jackson’s wholly-owned instruments as different from Jackson himself is to be mesmerised 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.
Jackson always denied any allegations he was involved in abusing underage boys.
His Neverland Ranch, in California, was sold in December 2020 for $22m (£16m).