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May 30, 2006 > Legal Eyes

Legal Eyes

by Stephen F. Von Till, Attorney at Law

Question: Can a stuntperson injured during filming of a movie sue for damages?

Answer: No, if only the employer or a co-worker is at fault; yes, if someone else is at fault, e.g., an independent contractor.

Discussion: During filming of the movie "Cannonball Run," stuntwoman Heidi Von Beltz, age 25, was paralyzed from the neck down. She was a passenger in a 1962 Aston-Martin in a car chase scene. The cars were choreographed to avoid collision. The first take went as planned. The Aston-Martin faced 5 on-coming cars, veered to the shoulder, and escaped. Special lenses made the cars appear closer than they actually were.

But director Hal Needham was not satisfied. For a second take, he wanted the cars to go twice as fast and weave in and out through on-coming traffic. Heidi was not told about these changes. Only the stunt driver was informed. The second take was 30 minutes after the first.

Stuntpersons may be fired for refusing to perform a stunt, but they do have a right to require safety devices. In this instance, there were no seatbelts in the Aston-Martin and Heidi did not request any of the 10 seatbelts available on the set for installation

On the second take, disaster struck with a 50 mph head-on collision. Heidi's career as an actress was over. Her life catastrophically altered, Heidi faced major hurdles in seeking damages:
1. As a stuntperson, did she "assume the risk" of injury?
2. Was she contributorily negligent for not wearing a seat belt?
3. Was she limited to Workers' Compensation benefits only?

The Court observed: "The motion picture industry has long employed seemingly fearless and hardy stunt persons. Frequently, these stuntpersons achieve spectacular results without injury. Other times, as here, adventure becomes misadventure."

In considering "assumption of the risk," the Court noted, "Where a movie director or producer changes the nature of the stunt without the stuntperson's knowledge, and thereby increases or otherwise alters the risk, the director or producer may be liable for any resulting injuries."

However, Workers' Compensation laws prohibit an injury lawsuit by an employee against her employer or her co-employees. Such laws have been on the books for nearly 100 years. If limited to Workers' Compensation benefits, Heidi would not be compensated for her mental and physical suffering or her lifetime of lost earnings.

Can Heidi find an exception to the Workers' Compensation limitations? Yes, if she can find someone at fault other than her employer or co-employee. Workers' Compensation laws give immunity only to the employer and co-employees, not to any other person or company. Thus, if the Aston-Martin had defective steering, Heidi could sue the manufacturer. But there was no defective steering here. Instead, Heidi claimed that director Needham's acts or omissions negligently caused her injuries.

Needham defended, claiming:
1. He was Heidi's co-worker, immune from suit by Workers' Compensation laws.
2. Heidi assumed the risk of injury by employment as a stuntwoman.
3. Heidi was contributorily negligent for not requiring seat belt installation.

Heidi was employed by Cannonball Productions, Inc. Needham, on the other hand, was an employee of his own directing company. Thus he was not Heidi's "co-employee." He was an independent contractor. Needham's company contracted Needham's services to Cannonball Productions. Both Needham and his company were liable.

A jury awarded Heidi $7,000,000, reduced by 35% for failure to wear a seatbelt. The Court of Appeal affirmed.

Lessons learned:

  1. Always wear a seat-belt

  2. If injured on the job, ask: "Is any company or person other than my employer or a co-worker at fault?" If so, Workers' Compensation laws do not prohibit a lawsuit against such persons or entities for full recovery of damages.

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