Who’s legally responsible for Rust set shooting that caused death of cinematographer?

By Shelby Harding, 2L Member

The Oct. 21 shooting on the set of the low-budget Western film Rust left the public questioning how something so reckless could ever happen. While shooting the film in New Mexico, a prop gun held by actor Alec Baldwin was improperly loaded with live ammunition and discharged, killing 42-year-old Halyna Hutchins and injuring director Joel Souza.

Yet, many would be surprised to know that between 1990 and 2016, there were at least 43 deaths from the improper handling of prop firearms on set, and 150 other people sustained life-altering injuries, a number that has continued to increase in the last six years.

Since the incident, there have been several civil lawsuits filed by different parties involved. Most recently, the family of Hutchins filed suit against Baldwin and “others responsible for the safety on set and whose reckless behavior” led to her “senseless and tragic death.”

The Hutchins family is suing for negligence, intentional, willful, or reckless misconduct resulting in wrongful death and loss of consortium. They are seeking both punitive and compensatory damages.

Hundreds of people are involved in the process of filming a motion picture. Therefore, it can be difficult to narrow down who is legally at fault when a tragedy like this takes place.

Many people were quick to point the finger at Baldwin as he was the one who fired the fatal shot. However, the actors performing scenes with firearms typically know very little about the deadly weapon before it reaches them to film a scene. This is why production companies hire prop masters, armorers, and other professionals to assist actors and actresses in executing the scenes and by making sure the prop weapons are safely handled on set.

It is unlikely Baldwin will face criminal charges resulting from the shooting. However, he may face civil liability for his role as a producer on the film if a court finds that industry safety protocols were not followed properly on the set.

According to reports from a camera operator on the set of Rust, there had been three other accidental discharges prior to the fatal shooting. Additionally, there were several reports of bullets lying all around the set, including dummy rounds, blanks, and live rounds.

According to other experienced producers and armorers, “there never should be live rounds on set at all, let alone loaded into an unattended weapon left on a props cart, and all ammunition should be kept track of and stored separate from weapons and not left in the weapons.”

If these reports are found to be true dozens of individuals may be held liable for the death of Hutchins. Individuals such as producers, armorers, and prop masters involved in the film could all face civil liability and may be required to pay damages to the Hutchins family.

The attorney representing the family expects the matter to go to trial in the next year-and-a-half depending on how quickly the New Mexico court system moves.

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