Leiden Law Blog

Michael Jackson and French civil liability

Posted on by Hélène Guiziou in Private Law
Michael Jackson and French civil liability

Michael Jackson’s fans want justice

In June 2009 Michael Jackson’s death was in the news all over the world. As the sales of his records far exceeded the borders of the United States, French fans were also deeply touched by the passing away of their idol. A few years later, the “Tribunal de grande instance d’Orléans” had to deal with one of its most surprising lawsuits. The death of the King of Pop affected his fans so badly that several of them filed a lawsuit against Dr. Murray. Their action was based on article 1382 of the Civil Code. According to the general principle that founds civil liability, anyone who causes loss to another person due to a fault of his or her own, has to compensate for that loss. In addition to receiving damages, the admirers wanted to be recognised as victims. The true aim of their lawsuit was that they should be permitted to mourn by the singer’s tomb, which was a privilege reserved for very few people.

On February 11th 2014 the tribunal granted the fans’ request, but the judges stopped halfway by limiting the damages to one symbolic Euro. This decision is one example of a wider conception of the notion of “loss” and of the part played by civil liability.

Every kind of loss can be compensated in the same way: the window dressing

The King of the pop’s death posed a serious and pertinent question to the above-mentioned French judge: i.e. can French civil liability consider every kind of loss? Is it reasonable that civil liability offers protection to a fan’s attachment to his idol?

Contrary to German and Dutch law, French civil law does not formally recognise the idea of Schutznorm. Moreover, as civil liability is based on a general principle, the idea of narrowing its scope to certain specific kinds of loss is absolutely unfamiliar to French jurists. While the Schutznorm doctrine allows for the compensation of a limited number of damages, the general principle has as its core the idea that any damage can be compensated. Rule and exception seem to be reversed.

At first sight, one cannot see what could have stopped these fans from getting what they wanted. However the idea of the “legitimacy” of the loss could have been pertinent in preventing their action. It goes without saying that legitimacy would not result in excessively narrowing the scope of liability. It would only be – or is already – a useful tool for judges to push back losses that the law cannot – or should not – consider. Refusing to compensate the pain of Michael Jackson’s fans does not mean that this pain is denied. It would just mean that civil liability cannot regard the harm caused by the death of a rock star and the death of a close relative as being equivalent. In the first place, it has to be said that losing a parent and an admired rock star is not the same. In the second place, judges have to prevent an excessive extension of civil liability. Legitimacy would then be an instrument of “juridical policy”. As civil liability is the most common gate between law and fact, between legal consequences and social changes, it seems important that judges play the part of rigorous border officers.

Considering the symbolic amount of damages, the judge seems to have stopped halfway in this case. In spite of his apparent generosity, he seems to have taken with the left hand what he gave with the right. Although liability was finally granted, legitimacy may have been apparent in the evaluation of the damages.

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