Actor Alec Baldwin could face charges for discharging a prop gun that resulted in the death of a director of photography on the set of his new movie “Rust,” according to legal experts.
But they cautioned that with key facts around the incident still in doubt, there is more to learn to determine who, if anyone, will face criminal charges.
Halyna Hutchins, 42, who was directing photography for the movie, was killed. Director Joel Souza, 48, was injured in the accident and taken to a nearby hospital.
“There are some circumstances where even a prop gun with a blank can be dangerous if it’s shot within close range,” said Neama Rahmani of the personal injury firm West Coast Trial Lawyers, according to USA Today.
“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,” she said.
“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 said.
Rachel Fiset, managing partner of Los Angeles firm Zweiback, Fiset & Coleman, said the issue goes beyond Baldwin.
“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,” she said, USA Today reported.
“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.”
Juan Rios, a public information officer for the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office, said Friday that investigators are still trying to determine what the gun contained when it was fired.
“That information is one of the particulars that we’re trying to determine at this point — what kind of projectile was in that firearm,” he said, according to USA Today.
Under the New Mexico law, involuntary manslaughter does not require “specific intent” of wanting someone dead, according to The Wrap. Such a charge would be a fourth-degree felony that could put a guilty person in jail for 18 months and a fine of up to $5,000.
But attorneys said nothing is clear-cut at this point.
“The prosecution would have to show that Mr. Baldwin acted with at least a negligent state of mind when he discharged the prop gun,” criminal defense lawyer Robert J. DeGroot said, according to The Wrap.
“There have been instances of accidents involving prop weapons on sets which have led to deaths or other injuries. Such tragic incidents are foreseeable and should lead crew and cast to follow safety protocols to ensure that any prop gun discharge does not lead to harm.”
Personal injury attorney Miguel Custodio said Baldwin, who was producing “Rust,” faces liability on that score as well as for pulling the trigger, The Wrap reported.
“Liability certainly points to Rust Movie Productions and the prop manager,” Custodio said.
“As the actor, Alec Baldwin has little liability because you’re given something and you’re trusting the prop manager to have checked everything out. Baldwin the producer may bear more responsibility, depending on if he is just an investor or has a more active role in the making of the film, which I suspect he does.”
“It’s also clear that somebody failed her [Hutchins] in the most basic way — to check whether a gun was safe — and may be criminally negligent,” Custodio said. “It’s likely they’ll go after Baldwin the actor, Baldwin the producer, the film company and the prop manager. And remember, director Joel Souza also was injured, and many others on set also are traumatized and affected by this.”
Richard Kaplan, a criminal defense attorney, said the facts will determine who faces what charges, according to The Wrap
“There’s a lot of scenarios I can run in my mind,” Kaplan said. “We don’t have an answer yet on why it was pointed at these two people. Was Alec reckless or were the prop people reckless? That’s what is being investigated and looked at.”
He said he is certain of one thing — there will be lawsuits.
“The family will pursue the civil side, but the question is how much does the family pursue the criminal side,” Kaplan said.
Attorney Jamie White said a lawsuit is expected, The Wrap reported.
“If Baldwin or another person was negligent, a civil suit is almost a no-brainer at this point — a very high likelihood,” White said.
“But the criminal side is going to be very fact-sensitive. Only if someone was recklessly negligent would there be criminal consequences. We see criminal negligence charges when people leave kids in hot cars, when they are recklessly driving. It’s too early to know that this will happen to Baldwin, but it’s not unheard of.”