While filming a movie in New Mexico, Alec Baldwin was handed a loaded firearm, which he discharged, killing a forty-two-year-old cinematographer, who happened to be a mother. The discharge also injured one of the directors of the movie.
While the law can never fully make things right when an injury or death occurs, there are some potential recoveries that the victim’s families and the surviving victim can pursue under civil law in an attempt to be made as whole as they can be after such an unfortunate event.
First, let’s look at the cinematographer that was killed in the line of work. Assuming that New Mexico has a workers’ compensation system similar to that of Ohio and assuming the cinematographer has an employer-employee relationship with someone involved in this particular filming, her heirs are going to be able to recover a survivor’s benefit to the extent medical bills are incurred. There could also be a funeral benefit under the workers’ compensation system. If she was an independent contractor, then we must look at third-party claims. With third-party claims, normally we are referring to negligence.
For negligence, someone must have a duty to do something, they failed to undertake that duty, and harm to another person occurred as a direct result of that failure. Alec Baldwin had a duty not to shoot anyone on the set, and arguably had the duty to check the weapon to ensure it was not loaded with live ammunition. Mr. Baldwin clearly failed to do this, and harm clearly occurred as a result of it.
What about the pro
duction company responsible for overseeing the making of the film? Under Ohio Law, the production company would be culpable if the acts of Mr. Baldwin were negligent. We look towards the employee and then the principal, or employer, which would be the production company here, and may hold the principal liable for acts of its employee. We call this Respondeat Superior.
There is a third avenue for liability, which may apply in this situation, called strict liability. Strict liability is essentially the law saying, “We don’t have to prove who is at fault here,” according to Boyk Law Attorney Mike Bruno. “A firearm is an inherently dangerous instrument of causing death, and we are going to hold the person in control of the firearm, or those people in control, strictly liable for any bad stuff that happens.” In this situation, there may be strict liability present for negligent, reckless, willful, and wanton conduct.
Separate from any workers’ compensation claims, the injured director will be able to recover medical bills, lost income to the extent he was not able to work, and recovery for pain and suffering. In the wrongful death case for the cinematographer, the estate will be able to recover funeral expenses and for the mental anguish of the survivor’s loss of the services from the deceased.
Interesting to this case is the possibility of punishment damages, called punitive or exemplary damages, under Ohio law. Exemplary damages are not designed to compensate the survivors or the victims, but instead to punish the wrongdoer.
Lawyers, in this case, could ask the jurors to award a significant number, well in excess of compensatory or compensation damages. This is because there were some alleged problems on the set before the incident, which are red flags.
If these prior incidents are all proven, and the production company, Mr. Baldwin, and those involved in the filming knew about these problems and failed to take corrective measures to implement remedies for those problems, then there is a basis for seeking punitive damages. In this case, you may see legal claims in the civil realm for compensatory and punitive damages under multiple different theories of liability.
Hopefully, this will bring about the change necessary so that these sets can be safe in the future, and so the victims and families impacted can somewhat be made whole again.