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Ball Don't Lie

Clippers owner Donald Sterling ordered to pay an actress a $17.3 million settlement following a fire at one of his apartment complexes (UPDATE)

Kelly Dwyer
Ball Don't Lie

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Donald Sterling and his wife Shelley Sterling (Getty Images)

(UPDATE: Via Deadspin, we've now learned that the punitive damages judgment is in. Sterling is now required to pay $15 million in punitive damages on top of the initial $2.3 million verdict in general damages. For the story behind the pair of decisions, read on ...)

For years we've documented the various claims that surround the distressing ways of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, as the longtime Clipper boss has been accused of harboring a “plantation mentality” with his team while allegedly doing some rather terrible things inside the Clippers locker room, and to a former girlfriend. Sterling has skirted responsibility for most of these claims, be they basketball-related, or in the realm of his less-than lauded lifestyle as a real estate baron.

In the latter, Sterling has been hit with his hardest penalty since being asked to pay $2.73 million in a racial discrimination case from 2005. Last Thursday a Los Angeles Superior Court jury ruled that Sterling has to pay $2.3 million as a result of his negligence as a landlord before and after a 2009 fire at one of his apartment complexes. Some $2 million of this will go to Robyn Cohen, an actress that lost most of her personal belongs and has suffered through post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the incident.

From The West Hollywood Patch:

Of the total award, the jury allocated $2 million to compensate Robyn Cohen for past and future emotional distress damages. The panel also found that Sterling and his employees acted with malice toward Cohen, triggering a second phase of trial to begin Monday afternoon to determine if she is entitled to punitive damages from Sterling.

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—smiled at jurors as they left for the lunch hour. She hugged one of her lawyers, Melissa Yoon, as the two left the courtroom with the actress' lead attorney, Brian Henri.

In her final argument Thursday, Yoon said the 79-year-old real estate mogul—who owns 130 buildings and 7,000 units in Southern California—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?"

That last phrase, probably not in reference to the Miles Davis classic of the same name, accurately characterizes Sterling's attitude toward his tenants and, at times, employees. And, most damningly, it also characterizes the attitude the NBA has toward Sterling. Just as long as his rent's paid on time, so to speak, it doesn't care what he does inside their particular complex.

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Robyn Cohen in 2007 (Getty Images)

It's true that Cohen is best known for a topless role, but she's far from some Cinemax-dwelling, Sterling-dating type. "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" is a highly regarded film, there was little that was gratuitous about her work in it, and her credits include significant TV work in shows such as "The Closer," "NCIS," "Gravity," and "The Mentalist." Sterling's legal team attempted to bring up her consistent TV and commercial work in the years since the 2009 fire, while pointing out that the fire system installed was strong enough to alert the building manager to the blaze, but the jury was apparently unmoved.

The West Hollywood Patch also reports that other actors, such as former "West Wing" cast member Kim Webster, also were affected by the 2009 fire but managed to settle out of court against Sterling after filing suit following the blaze.

The head of the fish truly stinks in this case, as it's not as if Sterling was the one personally taking the nine volt batteries out of Cohen's smoke detectors, but he is the top man in an organization that was ruled to have glossed over some very significant building code violations, while employing less than ideal building managers along the way. If Sterling has enough temerity to take Cohen to court probably knowing full and well that he would likely be liable in a settlement, working through a public trial, then it's obvious that nothing really shames the man even after years of embarrassing himself.

And, directly, embarrassing the NBA along the way. Or, at the very least, the NBA should be embarrassed that it continues to count Donald Sterling as one of the league's 30 owners. Nearly 30 years into his time in that fraternity, it's become evident that they care as little about this unfortunate mark on their reputation as Sterling does his admirable tenets.

And tenants.

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