The shooting death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on a New Mexico film set could have far-reaching legal ramifications, experts said — not only for the companies involved but also for individuals, including star and producer Alec Baldwin.
Hutchins was killed and director Joel Souza injured Thursday by a gun that Baldwin discharged during the filming of “Rust.”
No criminal charges have been filed in the case, which is being investigated by Santa Fe authorities.
Baldwin, the film's leading actor as well as one of its producers, said Friday he is “fully cooperating with the police investigation” into the death. “There are no words to convey my shock and sadness regarding the tragic accident that took the life of Halyna Hutchins, a wife, mother and deeply admired colleague of ours,” Baldwin wrote in a series of tweets.
A representative for Baldwin declined to comment further Saturday.
Attorneys and law professors said multiple people and entities involved in the production could face civil liabilities as a result of the death. Fatal on-set accidents involving firearms are rare, and film and television productions have rigorous protocols for the use of guns to prevent injury. When deaths do happen, lawsuits typically follow.
“Somebody has to have been negligent,” said USC Gould School of Law professor Gregory Keating. “This doesn’t happen without negligence. There are safety protocols that are supposed to be followed. It’s really just a matter of who’s negligent and how the responsibility gets parceled out. Then it gets murky because the facts are murky.”
Lawsuits can result in millions of dollars in damages. The family of Sarah Jones, a crew member killed in a 2014 train accident during the making of “Midnight Rider,” was awarded $11.2 million after filing a wrongful-death lawsuit.
Who faces liability in the “Rust” case will depend on how far the alleged negligence extends. The armorer, the person responsible for gun props used while filming, could be sued, as could the assistant director who reportedly handed Baldwin the weapon, Keating said.
The Associated Press, citing court records, reported Friday that Baldwin was given the gun by assistant director Dave Halls, who indicated it was safe to use in the moments before the actor fired it. The assistant director did not know the prop gun was loaded with any live rounds, according to a search warrant filed in a Santa Fe County court. Halls did not respond to The Times' request for comment.
In the film industry, a live round refers to a gun being loaded with some material such as a blank ready for filming, a source close to the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees told The Times.
The armorer, Hannah Gutierrez Reed, could not be reached for comment. The 24-year-old is the daughter of veteran armorer Thell Reed and had recently completed her first film.
The “Rust” production company could face significant damages in a civil suit, legal experts said, especially if producers of the low-budget feature were found to have cut corners to save time and money and skirted standard safety procedures. Baldwin could be named in a lawsuit for negligence, not because he was holding the weapon but because he is one of the producers.
“I’d be shocked if there wasn’t a lawsuit against the production company,” said Bryan Sullivan, a partner at Early Sullivan Wright Gizer & McRae. “They might name Alec Baldwin to get leverage, or the armorer or the lead producer, but in the end all of them are employees of the production company and any liability would be docked from the company and whatever insurance they have.”
“Rust” crew members told The Times that safety protocols, including gun inspections, were not strictly followed on the set. One of the camera operators complained last weekend to a production manager about gun safety, they said.
Baldwin’s stunt double accidentally fired two rounds Oct. 16 after being told the gun was “cold,” two crew members who witnessed the incident said. A colleague alarmed by the misfires sent a text message to the unit production manager, The Times reported.
The production company, Rust Movie Productions, said Friday in a statement that it was “not made aware of any official complaints concerning weapon or prop safety on set.”
“The safety of our cast and crew is the top priority of Rust Productions and everyone associated with the company,” the statement said. It added: “We will be conducting an internal review of our procedures while production is shut down. We will continue to cooperate with the Santa Fe authorities in their investigation and offer mental health services to the cast and crew during this tragic time.”
The producers did not respond to requests for additional comment on Saturday.
“There’s no explanation where you have this happen on a set where there’s not civil negligence,” said attorney Jeff Harris, who has worked on cases involving injuries and deaths on film and TV sets. “Could it rise to the level of criminal negligence? That’s what we’re going to have to hear more information about. In terms of liability up the chain, you’re hearing anecdotally from people saying that the set was in chaos. That, to me, is the sort of systemic recipe for trouble.”
Lawyers cautioned that there are still many unanswered questions regarding the incident, which has quickly become the dominant topic of conversation among crew workers in Hollywood.
“What safety protocols did they have in place?” said Stuart Fraenkel of Nelson & Fraenkel, who has represented clients including Olivia Jackson, the stuntwoman badly injured in an accident while filming “Resident Evil: The Final Chapter.” “Did they have safety meetings? We don’t know that yet.”
Some could face charges of involuntary manslaughter, depending on the outcome of the investigation, said Richard Kaplan, a Los Angeles defense attorney who represents white-collar clients.
In New Mexico, involuntary manslaughter charges can be brought against someone who commits a lawful act that results in death because of negligence or a lack of due caution.
“There is somebody who’s supposed to make sure things like this don’t happen,” Kaplan said. “If anyone has liability, it would be that person who was in charge of the armory on the set.”
Still, experts said there may not be criminal charges in this case. Asked about Baldwin's vulnerability, several lawyers noted that the actor reportedly was told the weapon was safe when it was given to him.
Criminal cases involving on-set deaths are rare, but they have happened. Director John Landis and other filmmakers were found not guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the deaths of actor Vic Morrow and two child actors killed in 1982 on the set of “Twilight Zone: The Movie.”
“A lot of prosecutors' offices watched that case and learned a lesson from it, which is: Don’t take what is basically civil negligence and turn it into a criminal action,” said criminal defense attorney Glen T. Jonas of Torrance-based firm Jonas & Driscoll. “There are circumstances where you could criminally prosecute someone for gross negligence, but just because you can doesn’t mean you should.”
In a counter-example, director Randall Miller spent one year in jail after he pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter over the death of Jones, the camera assistant who was killed in Georgia when a train collided into a crew filming “Midnight Rider.”
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