Death Struck on “Rust” Film Set: Who Will Be Held Liable?

BAYLA SANDMAN—On October 21, 2021, Alec Baldwin fired a prop gun on the set of “Rust,”  killing Halyna Hutchins, the film’s director of photography, and  injuring Joel Souza, the film’s director. Presently, it is unclear who from the film will be charged and what they will be charged with. There is no doubt that there will be lawsuits against Alec Baldwin and other members of production, but the specific charges and types of suits remain unclear.

There are various types of liability that the film’s production team faces, including civil charges and criminal charges, ranging from criminal negligence that can be sufficient for a manslaughter prosecution to intentional acts that may have caused this calamity.

Alec Baldwin, as the lead actor who fired the weapon  and as the film’s executive producer, will probably face civil charges from Hutchins’ family.  Though Baldwin is the actor who shot Hutchins and Souza, it is probably within his capacity as the executive producer that he will face the most liability. This is especially true because Dave Halls, the assistant director, handed the gun to Baldwin and told him that it was a “cold gun.” “Cold gun” is a film industry term used to indicate that the weapon does not contain ammunition. This may relieve Baldwin of liability as the actor who shot the gun. However, even if Baldwin is not found civilly liable because the evidence shows he played no part in the safety aspects of the production, as the executive producer, Baldwin had a responsibility to his team to ensure that the production team followed requisite safety protocols, particularly since this Western film is filled with weapons and dangerous stunts. Moreover, some of the facts suggest that crew members had walked off set prior to the shooting to protest working conditions. This indicates that the producers, including Baldwin, had warning of the dangerous condition, which could support the claim that the producers are liable for the unsafe condition.

For a criminal suit to be successfully waged against Baldwin, the prosecution will have to argue that that this was not an “excusable homicide.” In New Mexico, a homicide is excusable “when committed by accident or misfortune, in doing any lawful act, by lawful means, with usual and ordinary caution and without any unlawful intent.” The prosecutors will have to allege that Baldwin was  not acting with ordinary caution and was acting with unlawful intent. This is especially true because there is danger when firing weapons on set within close range of others, even when the weapon is not loaded with ammunition. Currently the evidence points to this tragedy being an accident, so a case of criminal negligence may be the only way to prosecute Baldwin. If criminal negligence is found, the prosecution could potentially charge Baldwin with manslaughter. The general question to answer as to whether any prosecution against Baldwin will succeed is whether proper compliance was taken to ensure that the safety protocols on set were followed.

Aside from Baldwin, other members of the production and the production companies themselves may be liable. Hale, the one who handed Baldwin the gun and declared that it was unloaded, may be facing civil liability for negligence, as well as criminal liability. In fact, Hale revealed in an affidavit that he had not inspected the gun thoroughly following a lunch break. Further, Hale’s previous employees made complaints against him for unsafe work practices, showing that failure to follow safety protocols was not unusual for productions on which Hale worked. Other producers and members of the production may be held liable for the same lack of compliance under which Hale and Baldwin may be facing charges. Finally, the production companies involved with “Rust” may also face corporate charges if there are findings of negligence on their part.

Although authorities have had difficulties prosecuting cases like these in the past, ultimately the investigations that the police are conducting and the safety protocols that should be followed, or lack thereof, will determine who will be held liable for this inconceivable tragedy.