Back in the early days of Hollywood, a lack of regulation led to many on-set accidents and deaths. The alarming frequency of incidents led to safety protocols, but despite these regulations, making movies is still risky for actors and crew members, and accidents continue to happen.
Film and TV-related fatalities steadily declined in the 1990s, and dropped to zero by 2003, as studios and producers stepped up their safety efforts and as some risky stunts were replaced with digital effects. In the last five years, however, the number of fatalities has risen.
On February 20, 2014, crew members of Midnight Rider were set up on a railroad trestle when a train unexpectedly crossed the bridge killing camera assistant Sarah Elizabeth Jones and injuring several others. As the investigation progressed, details surfaced that indicated those in charge of the production may not have obtained the proper permits to be on the tracks. The case led to the prosecution of the director, who served a year in jail for manslaughter. Jones’ family also filed suit, and was awarded them $11.2 million in damages.
Sarah’s death brought a widespread attention to movie set safety, especially on low-budget productions like Midnight Rider. However, has enough been done?
On July 27th, 2015, camera assistant Deb Cottrill was injured while unloading the camera truck on the set of Sleepy Hollow. She was hit by a truck on a road that should have been closed. The truck ran over her leg, causing it to get pinned beneath the wheel of the generator. Then the truck backed up and ran her over a second time. Cottrill suffered a broken leg and ankle and other injuries.
Two stunt pilots died and one was left with physical complications following a September 2015 accident on the set of American Made. It was unclear who was at the controls when the plane went down in the mountains.
In March 2016, Dylan O’Brien was shooting a complex stunt scene for The Maze Runner: The Death Cure when he apparently fell off the back of a set that was supposed to look like the back of a train. The actor was dragged under the vehicle, suffering a concussion, facial fractures, and lacerations. An investigation revealed that there was a last minute change to the “planned and rehearsed” scene, and the mechanics were not reviewed by all parties involved. Additionally, O’Brien received minimal instruction on the new action sequence.
Stuntman John Bernecker died on July 18, 2017 from injuries he sustained in a fall on the set of The Walking Dead. According to the Sheriff’s Office, Bernecker was supposed to perform a fall from a balcony onto a pad made of 22-inch boxes and port-a-pit pads. As he fell, he failed to get adequate separation from the balcony and tried to abort the fall by grabbing onto the railing. He spun backward and fell to the concrete below, landing on his head and neck. He missed the pad by inches. Both the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Screen Actors Guild‐American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) are investigating. The show’s production has been temporarily halted.
An entertainment industry risk management consultant said it took seven minutes for the first ambulance to arrive and a full 30 minutes before a helicopter landed to take Bernecker to the hospital. The SAG-AFTRA agreement includes a provision requiring that ambulances be on hand for hazardous stunts. While an ambulance may or may not have made a difference in this case, the consultant argues such a safety measure should be standard practice. “We can’t eliminate every possible risk,” he adds, “but we have to do everything we reasonably can to prevent those things from happening.”
Some of the blame for these accidents has been placed on shortcuts taken to save time and money. “It’s truly remarkable to me that production companies can use ultra-advanced technology to make spectacular films but too often they won’t spend the modest resources necessary to make sure their workers are not injured or killed on the job,” said David Michaels, assistant secretary of Labor for OSHA.
Regardless of the budget and regardless of whether the crew is trying to pull off a stunt or simply get the right angle for a shot, it is important to put the safety of the cast and crew first. Safety should never be secondary. Excitement, adventure, and thrill sell movies, but it’s only a movie, and no movie is worth dying over.
Mark Bello has practiced law for 40 years. He is currently the CEO and General Counsel of Lawsuit Financial Corporation, a pro-justice lawsuit funding company, and the author of the legal thriller “Betrayal of Faith” (available on major online book store sites) and “Betrayal of Justice” (to be released this fall).
Attorney, certified civil mediator, and award-winning author of the Zachary Blake Betrayal Series. Mark Bello is also a member of the State Bar of Michigan, a sustaining member of the Michigan Association for Justice, and a member of the American Association for Justice.