Famed legal scholar Jonathan Turley just gave Hollywood star Alec Baldwin some bad news. Turley said Baldwin could be criminally charged in the fatal shooting on his move because Baldwin was also a producer of the movie.
Turley says if the reports coming from the set detailing neglect and failure to act after similar misfires all the producers could be hit with involuntary manslaughter charges. Turley goes on to say Baldwin will face an uphill battle fighting any civil lawsuit.
Turley wrote: “The fatal shooting at Bonanza Creek Ranch already has the makings of a blockbuster legal action. Within 24 hours of actor Alec Baldwin fatally shooting cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and wounding the director, witnesses have raised serious questions of negligent and unsafe practice on the site for the low-budget film, “Rust.” That has led to question of both criminal and civil liability for Baldwin and others involved in the tragic shooting.
The question raised most often in the aftermath of the shooting is whether Baldwin could be charged criminally. The answer, in one word, is “yes.” However, much depends on the still unfolding facts around this fatal mishap with the prop gun.
There is no indication that Baldwin knew that that prop gun was “live” or that he personally loaded the gun. To the contrary, recent reports indicate that he was handed the gun by an assistant director who reportedly declared “cold gun,” or a gun with no live ammunition. That is notable since an earlier recorded message of a crew member complained that the incident was the fault of an assistant director, who was supposed to check the gun.
If true, Baldwin had little reason as an actor to suspect anything was wrong with the prop. The problem is that Baldwin was not simply an actor. He was also one of the producers on a site that had reportedly experienced prior discharges and complaints about site safety.
New Mexico has a provision that allows “involuntary manslaughter” charges for “the commission of a lawful act which might produce death in an unlawful manner or without due caution and circumspection.” If there was a pattern of neglect, including prior discharges from these prop weapons, the producers could be charged with involuntary manslaughter. Such a charge is a fourth-degree felony in New Mexico, with a penalty of 18 months jail time and up to $5,000 in fines.
The difficulty for criminal defense attorneys in dealing with such charges is that they do not require “specific intent.” Given prior deaths from prop guns (as with Brandon Lee in the movie “The Crow”), the danger of a fatal mistake was foreseeable. However, such charges are rare and unlikely in this case absent stronger evidence of knowledge or involvement by Baldwin in the preparation or handling of these props.
The most likely liability for Baldwin would stem from civil liability in the form of a wrongful death action. Indeed, the question is not whether but when the first torts lawsuit will be filed.
Again, we now know from accounts that the movie set was the source of long-standing complaints over safety and working conditions. The production company allegedly required workers to drive 50 miles a day rather than pay for hotels, according to witnesses. Workers complained that this left them exhausted on the set. The site turns out to be the same location used in past Westerns because of its remote and rugged terrain. (As a Western movie buff, one of the movies stood out as a favorite: “The Man From Laramie”).
Labor trouble at the site could serve to document such complaints. Labor disputes are often written up by a shop steward or labor representative at a work site.
Obviously, the clearest case could be brought by the family of Hutchins as a wrongful death action. They could also seek punitive damages in such a case. Compensatory damages cover both economic and non-economic damages. That includes pain and suffering and loss of enjoyment of life. While rare, New Mexico does not limit punitive damages, which can be sought for torts that are malicious, willful, reckless, wanton or fraudulent.
This case would seem a compelling application of punitive damages. It would have cost little to check the gun before it was used on the set.
If there is a criminal charge, a court could opt to delay any tort action until after the prosecution. However, the statute of limitations is three years for personal injury cases. They need only to file within that time. Indeed, a prosecution could strengthen the case by benefitting from evidence acquired by police and produced by the prosecution.
In the end, the liability may be delayed but will likely be considerable. The attorneys for the production company are likely to move quickly to seek settlements of civil claims, particularly with the family,” he wrote.