The death of cinematographer Halina Hutchins on a New Mexico set could have far-reaching legal consequences – not only for the companies involved, but also for individuals, including star and producer Alec Baldwin, experts say.
Hutchins was killed and director Joel Sousa was shot Thursday with a pistol that Baldwin detonated while filming Rust.
No criminal charges have been brought in this case and an investigation by the Santa Fe authorities is ongoing.
Baldwin, the film’s main actor as well as one of its producers, said on Friday that he is “fully cooperating with the police investigation” of the death. “There are no words to convey my shock and sadness over the tragic incident that claimed the lives of Galina Hutchins, wife, mother and our highly respected colleague,” Baldwin wrote a series of tweets…
A spokesman for Baldwin declined to comment further on Saturday.
Lawyers and law professors said several individuals and organizations involved in the proceedings could face civil liability as a result of death. Fatal gun accidents on set are rare, and there are strict rules on the use of guns in movies and TV programs to prevent injury. When death occurs, lawsuits usually follow.
“Someone must have been negligent,” said Gregory Keating, professor at USC Gould Law School. “It doesn’t happen without negligence. There are security protocols that need to be followed. In fact, it all depends on who was negligent and how responsibility is distributed. Then it becomes unclear because the facts are unclear. ”
Lawsuits can result in millions of dollars in damage. The family of Sarah Jones, a crew member who died in a train crash in 2014 while filming Midnight Rider, received $ 11.2 million after filing a wrongful death lawsuit.
Who is responsible in the Rust case will depend on how far the alleged negligence goes. The gunsmith, the man in charge of props for the weapons used during filming, could be sued, Keating said, as was the assistant director who reportedly handed the weapon over to Baldwin.
The Associated Press, citing court transcripts, reported on Friday that Baldwin was given a pistol by assistant director Dave Halls, who indicated that it could be safely used in moments before the actor fired. According to a search warrant filed with the Santa Fe County Court, the assistant director was unaware that the rifle was loaded with live ammunition. Halls did not respond to The Times’ request for comment.
In the film industry, a live cartridge means that a gun is loaded with some kind of material, for example, a blank, ready to shoot, a source close to the International Theater Workers Alliance told The Times.
Gunsmith Hannah Gutierrez Reed could not be reached for comment. The 24-year-old actress is the daughter of gunsmithing veteran Tell Reed and recently completed work on her first film.
According to legal experts, Manufacturing Company Rust could face significant damages in a civil lawsuit, especially if it turns out that low-budget feature manufacturers will “cut corners” to save time and money and bypass standard security procedures. Baldwin could be named in a negligence lawsuit not because he was holding a gun, but because he is one of the producers.
“I would be shocked if there was no legal action against the production company,” said Brian Sullivan, partner at Early Sullivan Wright Gizer & McRae. “They may call Alec Baldwin to gain leverage, or a gunsmith, or a leading manufacturer, but in the end they are all employees of the manufacturing company and any liability will be removed from the company and any insurance they have.”
Members of the Rust film crew told The Times that security protocols, including weapons checks, were not strictly followed on set. Last weekend, they said, one of the operators complained to the production manager about the safety of the weapon.
Baldwin’s double accidentally fired two shots on October 16 after being told the pistol was “cold,” two crew members who witnessed the incident said. According to The Times, a colleague, alarmed by the misfire, sent a text message to the production manager.
Production company Rust Movie Productions said Friday in a statement that it “has not been informed of any formal complaints about the safety of weapons or props on set.”
“The safety of our cast and crew is a top priority for Rust Productions and everyone involved with the company,” the statement said. It added: “We will conduct an internal review of our procedures while production is halted. We will continue to work with the Santa Fe authorities in their investigation and offer mental health services to the cast and crew during this tragic time. ”
On Saturday, producers did not respond to requests for additional comment.
“There is no explanation as to why this is happening on a set where there is no civil negligence,” said lawyer Jeff Harris, who has worked on personal injury and death cases in film and television. “Could this reach the level of criminal negligence? This is what we are going to hear more information about. When it comes to responsibility at the top of the chain, you hear people’s anecdotal stories of chaos on set. For me, this is a kind of systemic recipe for problems. “
Lawyers warned that there are still many unanswered questions about the incident, which quickly became the dominant topic of conversation among workers in Hollywood.
“What security protocols did they have?” said Stuart Fraenkel of Nelson & Fraenkel, who represented clients including Olivia Jackson, a stuntwoman who was badly injured in an accident while filming Resident Evil: The Final Chapter. “Did they have security meetings? We don’t know that yet. “
Some may face manslaughter charges, depending on the outcome of the investigation, said Richard Kaplan, a Los Angeles defense attorney representing white-collar clients.
In New Mexico, manslaughter charges can be brought against a person who has committed a lawful act resulting in death due to negligence or lack of due care.
“There is someone who has to make sure this doesn’t happen,” Kaplan said. “If anyone has a responsibility, it is the person who was in charge of the arsenal on set.”
Nevertheless, according to experts, there may not be a criminal case in this case. When asked about Baldwin’s vulnerability, several lawyers noted that the actor was reportedly told the weapon was safe when it was handed over to him.
Criminal cases involving death on set are rare but have happened. Director John Landis and the other filmmakers were found not guilty of the manslaughter of actor Vic Morrow and two child actors killed in 1982 while filming The Twilight Zone The Movie.
“Many prosecutors have watched and learned a lesson from this case: do not accept what is essentially civil negligence and do not make it a criminal case,” said criminal defense attorney Glen T. Jonas of Torrance. by Jonas & Driscoll. “There are circumstances in which you can prosecute someone for gross negligence, but just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should.”
By contrast, director Randall Miller spent a year in jail after pleading guilty to manslaughter in connection with the death of Jones, a camera assistant who was killed in Georgia when a train hit the Midnight Rider film crew.