Tragedy struck the film set of “Rust” Thursday, when star Alec Baldwin discharged a prop gun in an accident that left the cinematographer dead and the director injured.
An assistant director unwittingly handed Baldwin a loaded weapon and told him it was safe to use in the moments before the actor fatally shot cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the New Mexico set, court records released Friday show. Director Joel Souza, who was standing behind her, was wounded.
The news sent shockwaves through the entertainment industry. But what are the legal ramifications of such an incident?
“Proper compliance with safety issues on the set will be a large, general question that will be asked that may have a huge impact on any potential legal matters that may come from this case,” says Rachel Fiset, managing partner of Los Angeles firm Zweiback, Fiset Coleman. “And then on the worst side of the scale, you could have potential criminal issues that would range from criminal negligence to intentional acts that may have caused this tragedy.”
According to legal experts, law enforcement’s investigation into the incident needs to yield more details before questions about liability and criminal charges can be answered with certainty. But here are some things they say to expect.
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Though Baldwin discharged the gun resulting in Hutchins’ death and Souza’s injury, it’s unlikely the “30 Rock” alum will face criminal charges, especially if he didn’t know the firearm contained live ammunition, says Neama Rahmani, a former federal prosecutor who co-founded the Los Angeles personal injury firm West Coast Trial Lawyers.
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There are criminal issues outside of who discharged the weapon, says Rahmani.
According to an affidavit obtained by the Associated Press, several crew members handled the firearm before it was handed to Baldwin and deemed a “cold gun,” or a weapon without live ammo that was safe to use. “Assuming it was just incompetence or a colossal mistake, that rises to the level of criminal negligence, which would be sufficient for a manslaughter prosecution,” Rahmani says, adding that if charges are brought, the person who loaded the gun could be prosecuted, as well as anyone who knew the gun contained live ammo.
Fiset says production companies involved with “Rust” could also face corporate charges, should negligence of safety policies on their part be uncovered. Corporate charges usually amount to large fines and not jail time, she says.
“It very much depends on what anybody knew about that prop gun and if there was such a high degree of carelessness in its handling, all the way up to its purchase, all the way down to its handling by the actor,” she says. “Law enforcement will be looking at every aspect of that.”
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Who is liable for Hutchins’ death? That will become more clear as the investigation into the incident yields more details, says Rahmani.
“The question is, who loaded the gun?” he says. “What did he or she put in the gun?” If it was live ammo, “Why was there even live ammunition on this set?”
Though more details need to come to light, Los Angeles accident and personal injury lawyer Miguel Custodio says reports of crew members walking off set earlier that day in protest of working conditions could suggest the production bears some responsibility.
And that could include Baldwin, who also serves as a producer on the film.
“If there were corners that were cut and those corners had any role into the death of the director of photography and the injury of the director, then Alec Baldwin is very much liable, not as the actor but more as the producer,” he says.
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Even though experts say criminal charges are unlikely for Baldwin, he’ll still likely face legal repercussions, says Custodio, adding that a civil lawsuit will likely come from Hutchins’ family and name Baldwin, the film’s production companies, the prop master and other producers involved in the making of “Rust.”
“I guarantee there’s going to be a few lawsuits, and lawsuits are going to name him in both senses — as the actor and as a producer,” Custodio says. “And it’s in the producer sense where I think there’s a big potential for liability.”
According to Fiset, damages in a civil lawsuit would include any future profits Hutchins could have brought to her family that are now lost due to her death. And because Hutchins had such a promising film career, this estimate could amount to millions.
“Given what a star she was becoming, it becomes a very expensive civil suit when you think, sadly, from the dollars and cents perspective of the damages caused by her loss to her family,” Fiset says.
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Legal action in this case could likely not only impact Baldwin and the makers of “Rust,” but also workplace safety and hazard laws.
Fiset estimates outrage over Hutchins’ death will guide “a lot of safety standards for these kinds of situations in production. There’s absolutely no reason it should keep happening.”
The expansion and fortification of safety policies, whether within Hollywood or in the code of law more broadly, may be a way for some good to come out of the tragedy, says Custodio.
“I think it’s time for Hollywood to really get tough and prevent these deaths that could have easily been prevented.”
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