If O.J. Simpson has to pay the $8.5 million judgment leveled against him yesterday -- and possibly a lot more, if the jury decides to award punitive damages -- his standard of living will be substantially reduced, but California and federal law will protect him from impoverishment.
Federal law protects Simpson's pension funds -- at a reported $2.5 million, his single largest financial asset -- from creditors as long as he does not use money from the funds excessively. In addition to that protection, California law limits attachment of Simpson's future earnings to 25 percent and allows him to retain up to $75,000 in home equity, a car valued at $1,900 and up to $5,000 in jewelry and art.
Still, while there is no chance he will regain the lucrative product endorsements and advertising deals that were a major source of his income before the murders of his former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ronald L. Goldman, he is likely to enjoy other earning potential, a number of prominent public relations specialists said.
"He will be the Frankenstein of celebrities, but he will be a celebrity and people will pay to see him," said Howard J. Rubenstein, the head of his own New York public relations firm. "Being a celebrity in America does not mean being applauded, it means being a curiosity."
But curiosities don't get offered the kind of big-money deals like the kind Simpson had with Hertz. "Advertisers and corporations looking for a positive association with a public figure shy away from controversy," said Leigh Steinberg, a well-known sports agent. "A corporation is looking for a positive connotation and spinoff; they're looking for as close to universality as they can find and frankly he's been condemned in the minds of many people since the criminal trial, notwithstanding the verdict."
"It will be a tremendous drop in his lifestyle because nearly everything he has outside his pension system can be attached and his earning power will vanish," said Harland Braun, a prominent Los Angeles criminal attorney who monitored the trial. "It's not like he can be out there advertising for Avis, saying I never liked Hertz anyway. Fred Goldman is going to be haunting him."
Even though he may become a millionaire again, it seems unlikely Simpson again would achieve the wealth and the lifestyle he enjoyed before the murders, when his net worth was estimated at $11 million.
If this judgment proves accurate -- and if the jury adds to the award of $8.5 million in compensatory damages by a substantial award of punitive damages -- Simpson will have more financial resources on which to draw than most Americans.
Besides his pension and retirement funds that were established in the early 1980s, he can draw on these funds in five years, when he turns 55, and will also receive pension payments totaling $2,000 a month from the National Football League and the Screen Actors Guild.
Money in the pension funds can be used for "reasonable expenses" without penalty but could become the target of creditors if a judge determined Simpson was using the funds excessively.
"If he used it to buy a $20,000 Honda, that Honda would be subject to levy," Los Angeles finance lawyer Richard Brunette Jr. recently told the Los Angeles Times. "The court is not going to permit him to live a luxurious lifestyle . . . but he will not be required to sell pencils on the street."
His $3.6 million Brentwood mansion is encumbered by liens from defense lawyer Robert Baker, financial adviser Leroy Taft and others, totaling about $3 million, according to estimates. Simpson recently paid two overdue tax bills of more than $706,000.
Simpson also recently sold a red Ferrari for $100,000. He also might sell his expensive Bentley automobile, leaving him with only a Chevrolet Suburban.
When Simpson divorced Nicole Brown Simpson on Dec. 31, 1991, his net worth was estimated at $10.8 million. Even before last night's verdict, observers expected him to file a statement with the court declaring that he has no net worth.
Simpson has a $250,000 condo in San Francisco in which his wheelchair-dependent mother, Eunice, lives and on which there is a $213,000 lien. It is subject to attachment.
Lawyers involved in the case repeatedly have warned that the aftermath of the case could drag on for years if Simpson appeals and because of disputes about Simpson's financial status.
Whatever happens, Simpson will have to adjust to living on substantially less money, and this could be difficult for him. "It's so easy to go up, and so hard to go down," Braun said.
Civil attorney Brian Lysaght made a similar point in assessing the case for the Los Angeles Times. "They will grind Mr. Simpson down, no doubt about it," he said.
While he will not have access to the kinds of lucrative opportunities he had in the past, Simpson will probably still be able to earn considerable money, however. After the murders, Simpson raised about $2.5 million by selling his autograph, his book "I Want to Tell You," a videotape, and exclusive photographs of his homecoming after the criminal trial, which were sold to a tabloid magazine. The video was a commercial failure, but the other ventures were successful.
The first project Simpson is now likely to undertake is a book, which would almost certainly bring a multimillion-dollar advance.
"A book by O.J. Simpson would no doubt be a bestseller," said Steinberg, the sports agent. In addition, "there might be a film producer who would think that the notoriety and shock value of his involvement might bring a healthy box office to a motion picture." Suro reported from Washington, Cannon from Santa Barbara, Calif.; special correspondent Sharon Waxman contributed to this report.
CAPTION: Goldman family members acknowledge crowd's cheers after former football great O.J. Simpson was held liable in the deaths of Ronald L. Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson.
CAPTION: Crowd gathers outside courthouse guarded by police in Santa Monica, Calif., to hear verdict in O.J. Simpson wrongful-death civil suit.
CAPTION: News crews outside the courthouse in Santa Monica, Calif., await announcement of verdict in the civil trial of O.J. Simpson. (Photo ran in an earlier edition)
CAPTION: Plaintiffs Fred and Patti Goldman, center, arrive at court to hear verdict flanked by lawyers. (Photo ran in an earlier edition)