Assistant director Dave Halls unwittingly handed Baldwin a loaded weapon and told him it was safe to use in the moments before the actor fatally shot Halyna Hutchins on the New Mexico set, court records show. Director Joel Souza, who was standing behind her, was wounded.
The news sent shock waves through the entertainment industry. But what are the legal ramifications?
“Proper compliance with safety issues on the set will be a large, general question that will be asked that may have a huge impact on any potential legal matters that may come from this case,” says Rachel Fiset, managing partner at the Los Angeles firm Zweiback, Fiset & Coleman. “And then on the worst side of the scale, you could have potential criminal issues that would range from criminal negligence to intentional acts that may have caused this tragedy.”
Santa Fe District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies said during a recent news conference that she is not ruling out any charges against Baldwin. “No one has been ruled out at this point,” Carmack-Altwies said.
According to legal experts, law enforcement’s investigation of the accident needs to yield more details before questions about liability and criminal charges can be answeredwith certainty. But here are some things they say to expect.
Will Alec Baldwin be criminally charged?
Although Baldwin fired the gun resulting in Hutchins’ death and Souza’s injury, it’s unlikely the “30 Rock” alum will face criminal charges, especially if he didn’t know the firearm contained live ammunition, says Neama Rahmani, a former federal prosecutor who co-founded the Los Angeles personal injury firm West Coast Trial Lawyers.
On Wednesday, Santa Fe County Sheriff Adan Mendoza said the “actual lead projectile that was fired” had been recovered from Souza’s shoulder and is believed to be from a “live round” discharged by Baldwin on the set of the Western that ended in tragedy.
“I think the facts are clear. A weapon was handed to Mr. Baldwin. The weapon is functional, and fired a live round, killing Ms. Hutchins and injuring Mr. Souza,” Mendoza said.
Baldwin could be held liable, Rahmani says, if evidence suggests the actor behaved irresponsibly with the gun despite knowing the risks. That could amount to criminal negligence on the part of Baldwin, though there’s no evidence to support that.
“There are some circumstances where even a prop gun with a blank can be dangerous if it’s shot within close range,” Rahmani says. “Let’s say it was loaded with a blank but Baldwin himself was criminally negligent and shot it from close range, even though it wasn’t a live round. Then he could be held liable.”
Will anyone be criminally charged?
There are criminal issues outside of who discharged the weapon, Rahmani says.
According to an affidavit obtained by USA TODAY, several crew members handled the firearm before it was handed to Baldwin and deemed a “cold gun,” or a weapon without live ammo that was safe to use.
In an affidavit released Wednesday, Halls told investigators he had not inspected the prop gun thoroughly following a production lunch break.
“Assuming it was just incompetence or a colossal mistake, that rises to the level of criminal negligence, which would be sufficient for a manslaughter prosecution,” Rahmani says. He added that if charges are brought, the person who loaded the gun could be prosecuted, as well as anyone who knew the gun contained live ammunition.
Fiset says production companies involved with “Rust” could also face charges should negligence of safety policies on their part be uncovered. Corporate charges usually amount to large fines and not jail time, she says.
“It very much depends on what anybody knew about that prop gun and if there was such a high degree of carelessness in its handling, all the way up to its purchase, all the way down to its handling by the actor,” she says. “Law enforcement will be looking at every aspect of that.”
So who is liable for Halyna Hutchins’ death?
Who is liable for Hutchins’ death? That will become more clear as the investigation yields more details, Rahmani says.
“The question is, who loaded the gun?” he says. “What did he or she put in the gun?” If it was live ammo, “why was there even live ammunition on this set?”
Sheriff Mendoza said Wednesday that hundreds of rounds recovered on the “Rust” set were a mixture of “blanks, dummy rounds and what we are suspecting were live rounds.”
“Obviously, I think the industry has had a record recently of being safe. I think there was some complacency on this set, and I think there are some safety issues that need to be addressed by the industry and possibly by the state of New Mexico,” said Mendoza.
Los Angeles accident and personal injury lawyer Miguel Custodio says reports of crew members walking off set earlier that day to protest working conditions suggest producers could bear some responsibility.
And that could include Baldwin, who is a producer on the film.
“If there were corners that were cut and those corners had any role into the death of the director of photography and the injury of the director, then Alec Baldwin is very much liable, not as the actor but more as the producer,” he says.
Will Alec Baldwin be sued?
Even though experts say criminal charges are unlikely for Baldwin, he’ll still likely face legal repercussions, Custodio says. Hutchins’ family probably will file a civil lawsuit and name Baldwin, the film’s production companies, armorer Hannah Gutierrez and other producers involved in the making of “Rust.”
In addition to Baldwin, a call sheet for the day of the shooting obtained by The Associated Press lists five producers, four executive producers, a line producer and a co-producer. They, Halls and Gutierrez may all be subject to civil liability.
“I guarantee there’s going to be a few lawsuits, and lawsuits are going to name (Baldwin) in both senses – as the actor and as a producer,” Custodio says. “And it’s in the producer sense where I think there’s a big potential for liability.”
But while Baldwin, the other producers, the assistant director and the armorer might be named as parties in a civil lawsuit, not all may be found to be liable – particularly if they played no role in the safety aspects of the production or only held a vanity credit. The plaintiffs would likely go after the production company’s deeper pockets.
According to Fiset, damages in a civil lawsuit would include any future profits Hutchins could have brought to her family that are now lost. And because Hutchins had such a promising film career, that could amount to millions.
“Given what a star she was becoming, it becomes a very expensive civil suit when you think, sadly, from the dollars and cents perspective of the damages caused by her loss to her family,” Fiset says.
Will this incident affect laws?
Legal action in the case could not only affect Baldwin and the makers of “Rust” but also lead to changes in workplace safety and hazard laws.
Fiset says outrage over Hutchins’ death will guide “a lot of safety standards for these kinds of situations in production. There’s absolutely no reason it should keep happening.”
New Mexico governor Michelle Lujan Grisham told the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday that she will pursue state legislation regarding safety protocol on film sets if Hollywood fails to act.
“My full expectation is that the film and television industry will, at the conclusion of the investigation into this tragic incident and once all the facts are in hand, bring forward comprehensive new safety protocols to ensure this kind of incident never, ever happens again,” Lujan Grisham said in a statement to the outlet.
“If that sort of comprehensive new approach does not materialize, the state of New Mexico will take immediate action, throughout whatever means are available to us, to ensure the safety of all personnel on all film and television sets here in our state.”
The expansion and fortification of safety policies, whether within Hollywood or in the code of law more broadly, may be a way for some good to come out of the tragedy, Custodio says.
“I think it’s time for Hollywood to really get tough and prevent these deaths that could have easily been prevented.”
Contributing: The Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Will Alec Baldwin face charges? Legal experts discuss prop gun tragedy