Hollywood is not just glitz and glamour, charming film stars, and handsome actors walking on the red carpet. Unfortunately, in the history of films and TV shows shooting, multiple accidents have occurred, some of them being fatal. In October 2021, our hearts were broken by the tragic and absolutely unprovoked death of Halyna Hutchins, a director of photography of Alec Baldwin’s last film, Rust. Hutchins’ decease is not the first death caused by a firearm in a movie or TV show. However, it puts a spotlight on how firearms can be used safely in the entertainment industry and, moreover, whether they should be banned.
In brief, according to the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Department, a prop firearm was discharged by Baldwin during a rehearsal on the New Mexico movie set, killing the chief cinematographer and wounding the director. The film star claimed he was told the gun was safe and had no idea how it ended up loaded with real ammunition.
A series of fatal injuries have been occurring in the industry for years. Probably the most widely known tragic incident was the death of the unforgettable Brandon Lee, the son of the martial arts legend Bruce Lee. In 1993, Brandon was fatally wounded by a prop gun on “The Crow” film set.
— Baby K (@beadysass) February 7, 2022
The devastating death of Brandon Lee happened while he was filming a scene where his character, Eric Driven, is shot by some gang members. The prop crew had decided to remove the usually used gunpowder and make their own dummy cartridges. Sadly, they did not properly check the prop revolver and did not know that the primer was still inside the cartridge. Just like Halyna Hutchins, after the wrongful shot, Brandon Lee was airlifted to hospital but doctors were unable to save his life.
A thorough investigation was conducted back then but no culprit was identified and the actor’s death was determined to be an accident due to negligence. The tragic decease of Hutchins during the shooting of Rush has led to questions over whether Baldwin stands to face any criminal charges.
What Do Legal Experts Say?
The more time passes, the less likely it is that Alec Baldwin will be charged with a felony. However, the investigation is not yet completed and a number of experts are giving their opinion on the possible outcome of the case.
Under certain circumstances, the tragic accident can be classified as involuntary manslaughter. According to New Mexico Statutes, this type of crime falls within the fourth-degree felony category which provides for 18-month imprisonment and a fine of up to $5,000. Furthermore, according to §31-21-10, a person who has served his sentence of imprisonment shall be required to go through a one-year parole period.
If prosecutors eventually decide to bring involuntary manslaughter charges against Alec Baldwin, they will have to prove that the actor has acted irresponsibly and discharged the prop gun although he had been warned not to. Proving his guilt, in this case, would be extremely complicated given how many people handled the fatal weapon before it reached Baldwin’s hands.
Newsweek introduces another aspect of the possible consequences, that of civil liability. According to Nancy Gartner, a former United States District Judge and a current senior lecturer at Harvard Law School, there is a chance Alec Baldwin will face some lawsuits. In order for the terms of a civil lawsuit to be fulfilled, the relevant damage must be ensuing out of the defendant’s violation of a law, breach of contract, or another wrongful action. So now it is up to the investigators to thoroughly inspect all contracts concluded in relation to the filming of the Rush movie. Thus it will be determined who was obliged to do what and whether there had been any negligence that had unfortunately led to Halyna Hutchins’ death.
A civil lawsuit probably would not be a threat to the film star if he was just an actor. However, apart from playing the lead role, Alec Baldwin is a producer of Rush and this inevitably leads to more responsibilities and therefore more common points with the circumstances that led to the tragic accident. The New York Post published a text message from a member of the crew stating that several union camera people had resigned due to poor gun safety measures. According to the words of this anonymous lady, the replacement staff was not experienced with handling prop guns but despite that, the new people started working immediately.
The Position Producer and Its Real Meaning
Having said that, you may think there is not much for the prosecutors to wonder about – Baldwin is a producer, he is responsible for everything that happens on the film set, so he is going to prison. Well, it is not that simple. The Rush film is an independent production and as such, it has multiple financiers and several people having the title producer or executive producer. Unless everybody’s contract is read in detail, there is no way to be sure who was in charge of staff recruitment or prop gun observance.
When an actor like Alec Baldwin receives a producing credit on a film like “Rust,” it could indicate a deep involvement with the production or could be little more than an honorary title. https://t.co/KUNiviUqlr
— Los Angeles Times (@latimes) October 27, 2021
This is not the first time Alec Baldwin is credited as a producer. He was named an executive producer on “State and Main” and a producer on “30 Rock. The actor also starred in the 2016 film “Blind” where he received an executive producer credit as part of his deal as an actor without performing another producorial role.
Just a few days before the death of Halyna Hutchin, Alec Baldwin posted a video expressing his support to the IATSE members who were in negotiations for a new contract to protect their interests – working hours, salaries, safety measures. “Do what you need to do… You wanna go on strike? Go on strike! You got to fight!” he says. Furthermore, Baldwin talks about film producers quite critically and in an obscene way, so we don’t think he sees himself in this position.
Legal Actions Against Alec Baldwin
One of the laws applicable on the territory of New Mexico provides another opportunity to seek responsibility for the death of the 42-year old cinematographer. According to N.M. Stat. § 41-2-1 (2021), a “wrongful death” is a death that is “caused by the wrongful act, neglect, or default of another” and if the victim had lived, would be eligible to file a personal injury lawsuit.
Lawyers for the family of Halyna Hutchins, the killed “Rust” cinematographer, filed a petition this week to appoint a representative to consider whether to file a wrongful-death lawsuit. It did not specify who would be named as a defendant. https://t.co/ThkK1zIo1y
— The New York Times (@nytimes) January 28, 2022
It is in this relation that the lawyer Kristina Martinez showed up, requesting to be appointed as a personal representative of the estate of Halyna Hutchins. In itself, her document does not represent an official civil action against Alec Baldwin but rather an appointment aiming at performing a supplementary investigation and potentially filing a wrongful death lawsuit.
If Halyna Hutchins’ family finally decides to move on with that legal action, this will not be the first lawsuit filed in connection with the case. In November 2021, Mamie Mitchell, the film’s screenplay supervisor, sued Baldwin and the other producers for loss of future earnings, ear injury, and court expenses among other damages resulting from the fatal shooting. According to Alec Baldwin’s lawyers, the accident should be dismissed as a working accident and any potential compensations must be sought after from the state’s workers compensation system. What is more, Mamie Mitchell has not yet proved any intentional behaviour on behalf of Baldwin and the other producers of Rush.
“In our opinion, Mr. Baldwin chose to play Russian Roulette when he fired a gun without checking it and without having the armorer do so in his presence,” said Mamie Mitchell who alleged Baldwin should have checked the gun himself for live ammunition https://t.co/SacdpAXRMe pic.twitter.com/cbHqhVBZJC
— Reuters Legal (@ReutersLegal) November 19, 2021
Before Mamie Mitchell, it was Serge Svetnoy who filed a lawsuit for negligence that has led to the tragic incident and caused “severe emotional distress” to the plaintiff. This legal action names several defendants including Baldwin as a star and a producer, David Halls as the assistant director who handed the loaded gun, and the weapons responsible Hannah Gutierrez-Reed. Serge Svetnoy claims to be not only Hutchins’ co-worker but also a close friend. He stated that no safety standards were implemented and thus the producers have allowed for a gun loaded with live ammunition to be pointed at people. Svetnoy used his personal Facebook profile to clarify his position: “I addressed my post to the producers of the whole world, asking them not to save money on the crew and hire the professionals.”
The last crew member to file a negligence lawsuit is Cherlyn Schaefer, the onsite medic who was the first to rush and try to help Halyna Hutchins. She stayed with the cinematographer until the helicopter arrived, supplying her with oxygen and applying direct pressure on the wound. From the case papers, it becomes clear that the doctor claims she has suffered “tremendous shock, trauma and severe emotional distress”. The legal action filed by Schaefer does not particularly name Baldwin but rather the film production company as well as Hannah Reed Gutierrez (armourer), Dave Halls (first assistant director), Seth Kenney (ammunition supplier), and Sarah Zachry (prop master).
Cherlyn Schaefer, who is from Valencia County, says in her complaint she was the “key medic” on the set and “fought desperately” but unsuccessfully to save cinematographer Halyna Hutchins’ life.https://t.co/k7ErIf7w0i
— Santa Fe New Mexican (@thenewmexican) February 8, 2022
Legislative Amendments Following The Tragedy
Whether or not any of the mentioned legal actions will lead to an effective sentence for Alec Baldwin remains to be seen. It is of high importance, however, the death of Halyna Hutchins not to remain just another event in statistics but to trigger legislative amendments that will contribute to film sets becoming a safe workspace for thousands of stagehands.
By the end of January 2022, the US senator Cliff Pirtle of Roswell presented a bill that would require all film set employees who handle guns to pass through a safety course provided by the New Mexico Game and Fish Department. In a statement, the senator expressed his opinion that talks about firearms use in Hollywood have been too broad and abstract so far and it is time to execute some real actions. According to the proposal, film companies that do not conform with the new provisions would risk being not eligible for state tax rebates. In the case of New Mexico, the film tax rebate can be between 25% and 35% which is a significant amount that can sometimes be indicative of whether a film will be snapped at all.
“Actors handling firearms on film sets in New Mexico would be required to take a gun safety course from the state Department of Game and Fish before the cameras start rolling under a bill introduced Monday.” https://t.co/tnVCxdAgBr
— Firearms Policy Coalition (@gunpolicy) January 31, 2022
The Democrat-led Legislature has still not confirmed if it will bring the bill up for debate and a potential vote.
Even without new legislative provisions coming into force, some film companies and producers have already announced they are going to change the way shooting scenes are filmed. In an interview for Variety, Dwayne Johnson The Rock declared that Seven Bucks Productions will not use real guns anymore on the sets of any of its films. “We’re not going to worry about the dollars; we won’t worry about what it costs.” Another famous name, Eric Kripke, an American writer and television producer also made a similar announcement, stating that he will only use VFX muzzle flashes on his sets. His Tweet on the topic has more than 17,000 likes and is followed by hundreds of comments.
Someone hurt or killed on my set is my worst nightmare. Sending love to Halyna Hutchins’ family, @JensenAckles, cast & crew of “Rust.” I’m so sorry. In her memory, a simple, easy pledge: no more guns with blanks on any of my sets ever. We’ll use VFX muzzle flashes. Who’s with me?
— Eric Kripke (@therealKripke) October 22, 2021
Bandar Albuliwi started a petition on change.org calling for a ban on the use of real guns in the film industry that has already been signed by more than 116,000 people. “We need to make sure that this avoidable tragedy never happens again. There is no excuse for something like this to happen in the 21st century. Real guns are no longer needed on film production sets” says Albuliwi in the petition’s description. Another initiative regarding a possible gun ban was the open letter signed by more than 200 cinematographers and other Hollywood professionals just a couple of weeks after the accidental death of Hutchins.
Let’s hope аll these statements will not be a lone voice in the wilderness and this time there will be a real change for the better. This is even more important than whether Alec Baldwin will go to prison or not.
Daniel Williams has started his writing career as a freelance author at a local paper media. After working there for a couple of years and writing on various topics, he found his interest for the gambling industry.