Could Alec Baldwin Face Accidential Death Lawsuit in ‘Rust’ Shooting?

I would hate to be Alec Baldwin right now. He has has to live with accidentally killing Rust cinematographer Halyna Hutchins. More than that, he may be subject to an accidental death lawsuit.

Baldwin is listed as one of the producers of Rust. It’s not hard at all to see Hutchins’ family sue Baldwin and the production company for liability.

Rust Movie Productions LLC appears to be the production company for Rust. Every production company should carry forms of liability insurance to protect against these exact types of accidents (using “accident” here lightly, knowing that someone’s death is more than just an accident).

Rust wasn’t a major movie production, so there didn’t’ seem to be a big budget. Per LA Times:

The low-budget production was not a major studio project but an independent film financed by BondIt Media Capital, with CAA Media Finance on board for domestic sales rights and Highland Film Group handling international sales.

It’s possible that the production company may have skimped on certain responsibilities due to a smaller budget. Not saying they did, but this is based on various news reports. Already, we’ve seen news that camera crew walked off the set to protest poor safety.

Insurance comes in many types for production companies: general liability, workers’ comp, etc. Each covers a specific area. For instance, general liability covers bodily injury and property damage. Workers’ comp covers on-set accidents.

Anyone who’s bought insurance knows the more you cover, the more you pay. If Rust‘s production company had a smaller budget, it’s not hard to see that certain coverage may be lacking, possibly exposing every principal of the production company, such as Alex Baldwin, to liability.

Where could Baldwin avoid liability?

While a wrongful death or negligence lawsuit might seem like obvious recourse for people injured on set or for families of loved ones killed, employees who are harmed by other employees fall under workers’ compensation laws, which bar most workers from suing. There are exceptions, such as if the person injured is an independent contractor or a third-party non-employee is blamed for the mishap.

There could be a similar roadmap ahead for Baldwin and Rust‘s production company, and the accidental death of a stuntman on the set of The Walking Dead in 2017.

Stuntman John Bernecker died from an accidental, on-set fall 25 feet high in 2017. During rehearsals, Bernecker missed a safety cushion by inches and landed on his head. Sadly, Bernecker died the next day.

Bernecker’s parents, Susan and Hagen Bernecker, sued “AMC Networks, production company Stalwart Films and others.” According to their attorney:

[Bernecker’s parents] argued those producing the show skimped on safety measures for financial and scheduling concerns. Lawyers for the defendants said the stuntman’s death was an unforeseeable accident.

This sounds very familiar to Rust. A possible smaller budget that leads to possibly cutting corners and poor safety measures. Lax safety measures due to budgeting that then lead to an accidental on-site death.

Initially, Bernecker’s parents were rewarded $8 million in December 2019. Interesting that the courts didn’t find AMC liable, but did find the production company liable.

However, this past March 2021, the Georgia Court of Appeals overturned the civil verdict. They reasoned that the death was barred by Georgia’s Workers’ Compensation Act because Bernecker was considered an employee, not an independent contractor. As an employee, Bernecker was subject to the Workers’ Compensation Act. As a result, the act released the production company from negligence claims.

Something similar could happen in the future for Rust Movie Productions LLC. Hutchins’ parents may file an accidental death lawsuit based on negligence. It could then depend on whether or not Hutchins is considered an independent contractor or employee. Most film crew members, which Hutchins as cinematographer would be considered crew, appear to be employees.

The IRS view is that most crew members, actors, and others working on a film production should be classified as employees, not independent contractors…

New Mexico, where the accident happened, also has a similar Workers’ Compensation Act to Georgia. The kicker is the exclusive remedy portion of the act:

This provision states that a worker injured on the job may only recover compensation through the procedures outlined in the Act.  Upon hiring, the employee surrenders the right to seek restitution against the employer for work injuries through a personal injury lawsuit.

Workers’ comp payouts are way less than civil claims. Anyone who’s dealt with an employers knows how eager they are to give injured people more money.

Another consideration would be if Hutchins’ death resulted from a co-worker or third party. New Mexico law states you can settle with third parties for any sum. However, any accident caused by a co-worker falls under workers’ compensation. Since actors appear to be employees and Hutchins was accidentally injured by Baldwin the actor, Baldwin the producer and his production may not have liability.

Yet, people sue whoever has the deepest pockets. Plus, people sue whoever they want. Whether or not Baldwin is liable, he’ll be sued.

Consider the PR part though. Baldwin won’t want this lawsuit to go on forever, unresolved, always coming up in the headlines. Like a lot of lawsuits, this looks like it’ll be headed for a private settlement.

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