Photo: Vanity Fair
Billionaire media kingpin Sumner Redstone's trial to determine his competency will be open to the public on the orders of Judge David Cowan, who will preside over the case in Los Angeles Superior Court. Redstone has headed the Paramount/CBS/Viacom media empire for decades, but as his condition has allegedly deteriorated, so too have the gloves come off in a prospective legal struggle for estate and corporate assets among multiple players.
The upcoming trial is set for May 6th, and will revolve around whether the 92-year-old Redstone was of sound mind when he removed Manuela Herzer, his onetime girlfriend, from his will and advanced health care directive (in which she figured as his primary caregiver) in October of 2015. Herzer, 51, was set to receive a sizeable $50 million in cash along with a $20 million Beverly Park mansion upon the mogul's passing. Redstone's attorneys attempted to convince Judge Cowan to quash any further court proceedings, but to no avail. Apparently enough questions were raised about the American business titan's potential incapacity and susceptibility to undue influence - likely due to findings by plaintiff-hired UCLA geriatric psychiatrist Dr. Stephen Read, who had an hour to evaluate Redstone in January - that Cowan decided to green-light the litigation process.
Now we learn that the trial will be open to the public, a factor that's likely not to the satisfaction of Redstone's legal team. The Viacom founder's lawyers had previously sought to keep certain documents away from the peering eyes of the press, and with only limited success. Intimate and strange details of Redstone's romantic life have already been revealed, and Herzer is likely to bring further information forward on the tycoon's diminished physical and mental state. Primary among Judge Cowan's concerns has been the seeming absence of those officially in charge of Redstone's care. Redstone first named Philipp Dauman, CEO of Viacom, who lives in New York, as his health care agent, then shifting the designation to his daughter Shari, a key competitor in any future scramble for assets who resides in Boston.
The key question today is whether Herzer and the powerful group around Redstone can reach an eleventh-hour settlement before more embarrassing details of the entertainment magnate's make their way into newspaper headlines. Moreover, a trial will not likely bode well for corporate stability. Redstone retains 80% of ownership in both CBS and Viacom; should he indeed be found incompetent, the companies' position, and that of its shareholders, could falter significantly in the face of an unclear future. While the game for control over Redstone's fortune both personal and corporate is multi-leveled and complex, it bears out the simple notion that charges of undue influence in estate, trust or probate litigation are serious business.