Recently, two shocking stories emerged from the entertainment world.
One took place on a New Mexico film set for a western called Rust. A scene rehearsal went terribly wrong when actor Alec Baldwin handled a prop gun that accidentally discharged a live round. The cinematographer, Halyna Hutchins, was killed and the director Joel Souza was wounded.
Also in the U.S., the Astroworld music festival in Houston, Texas, turned deadly. During a performance by headliner Travis Scott and surprise guest Drake, the crowd of 50,000 surged toward the stage. Concertgoers reported passing out and getting trampled. In the crush, nine people died and hundreds more were injured. The fatalities ranged in age from 14 to 27.
The aftermath of the Rust accident and the Astroworld accident are similar. People are demanding answers on how this happened. The police are investigating. The media is reporting. And the victims are suing.
Set against this furor, details are emerging. There are reports that, leading up to the accident, the Rust film crew repeatedly complained of workplace safety and of the assistant director responsible for prop guns.
Cellphone footage of the chaos at the Travis Scott show has been shared online. The media is also shining a light on Scott’s history of unsafe shows. Scott even has a criminal history relating to concert safety.
Still, these are narratives that only attempt to explain these tragedies while everyone is still reeling. The investigations and lawsuits will find out what actually happened.
Both the Rust movie set and the Astroworld festival had fatalities that should never have happened. It is unclear still how they happened, but it’s not overreaching to say that there was likely liability on someone’s part. After all, these sorts of things aren’t supposed to happen (even though they do, unfortunately). This legal responsibility could be in the form of civil liability or criminal liability or both. It could be negligence or something entirely different.
In each tragedy, there is an entertainer in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. Are Alec Baldwin and Travis Scott in legal trouble?
The question of legal responsibility is not a simple one in these scenarios. That’s because of the context in which the accidents took place.
Movie productions and music festivals are large projects. Think of just how many people might be involved in the making of Rust: movie executives, actors, stunt crew, film crew, security staff, and safety consultants. A music festival is no different. There are concert promoters, festival planners, security staff, musicians, venue workers, and law enforcement involved. When you consider the number of people involved, you can begin to see how complex the question becomes.
Who was responsible for safety? What was the chain of command?
Determining liability requires looking at the role of everyone involved. The authorities and lawyers will be looking at the safety responsibilities of each person in the entire operation.
To better understand these requirements, they may look at legal precedents. Courts may have considered similar scenarios in the past and given their views. They may also look at the industry standards, contractual obligations, and safety protocol. What rules were in place?
Knowing what should have been done for safety and who should have done it will help authorities decide legal responsibility. So what about Baldwin and Scott in particular? For Baldwin, he could face liability if he acted in a way that went against industry norms and against film-set rules. The further he strayed from those standards, the more risk of liability he has.
On the other hand, he could have a legal defence if he followed all of the safety rules in place. Liability could fall elsewhere: was the prop gun supposed to have a live round? Who put it in the gun? What was Baldwin told about the gun?
For Scott, he could face liability if the investigations find that he caused the crowds to become dangerous or if should have intervened but didn’t. How were the crowds before Scott took the stage? What did Scott say to them? What did he know and what could he see while on-stage? Scott has made public statements that he didn’t know about the accident until after his show.
In such complicated scenarios, legal responsibility, whether it’s criminal or civil, will likely not fall on one person. The tragedies may have been due to multiple failings by numerous individuals. There likely won’t be a simple answer. And that will be difficult to accept for those directly affected by these tragedies.
The author’s opinions of this case are based on news reporting and not on any firsthand knowledge or from any personal involvement.
A word of caution: you should not act or rely on the information in this column. It is not legal advice. To ensure your interests are protected, retain or consult a lawyer.