Legal analysis by Andrew Branca at Legal Insurrection. As Mr. Branca points out, we really don’t know enough of the facts in this case to arrive at a legal conclusion:
To be clear, our goal here is not necessarily to arrive at a definitive legal answer—I’m not sure we really know enough facts with enough certainty to do that.
But if we can’t immediately arrive at the right legal answer, at the very least we can understand how to ask the right legal question—and that’s what we’ll do right here, right now.
Please read the entire article in order to see the complete picture. Mr. Branca explains the options that may legally apply, and examples for each. They are accident, negligence and recklessness.
In the case of a true accident, Baldwin would not face legal liability.
If, however, he was negligent, although not meaning to cause harm, he would incur civil liability.
If h was not just negligent, but reckless, he would incur criminal liability.
So, is this case an accident, negligence, or recklessness?
[. . .] The answer will, of course, depend on what the facts are ultimately turn out to be, but we can certainly explore the range of outcomes that would be on the table.
Innocent accidents can happen with firearms, but they are rare—and the reason they are rare is that firearms are recognized legally as inherently dangerous instruments, and therefore the standard of care for handling them is very high.
What might an genuine accident with a handgun look like? Well, imagine a gun that has an unseen defect, such that when the barrel is brought up to the horizontal position the gun discharges without any press of the trigger.
This is clearly not how a gun is supposed to fire, nor would any reasonable person expect a gun to fire under such circumstances [. . .]
On the other hand, a defective gun doesn’t necessarily mean there was no negligence involved, and if there is negligence there cannot be an innocent accident and zero legal liability—there must, at least, be civil liability.
In our hypothetical with the defective gun, for example, it may be true that the discharge of the gun was not foreseeable by Alec Baldwin, and therefore not really in his control—but the direction in which the gun was pointed certainly was in his control.
The death of Ms. Hutchins by the discharge of the gun could not have occurred had the gun not been pointed at her—and that pointing of the gun at her would certainly seem to constitute negligence [. . .]
But the potential liability doesn’t end there, because we must also consider the possibility that the killing was the result not of innocent accident, and not merely of civil negligence, but rather the result of criminal recklessness.
Let’s change our hypothetical to remove the defect from the gun. Now the gun operates normally, and will not discharge unless the trigger is depressed. Imagine also that some of the news reporting of this event accurately describes the discharge of the weapon as follows.
Let me be clear—I have no idea if what I’m about to describe will turn out to accurately describe the events in this case. I read such a description of the events online, but have no idea if the person providing that description has any idea what they are talking about. Here we’re using that description of events not as a claim that they represent what actually happened, but merely as a hypothetical to explore the legal issues that could arise in this case.
The day was running long, the actors and crew were getting tired, another scene had to be shot yet again, and in an effort to add some levity to the circumstances Alec Baldwin, holding a firearm in his hands that he believed to be unloaded, jokingly told the director of photography Ms. Hutchins and director Joel Souza, “We have to shoot that scene again? How about if I just shoot you both, instead.” He then points the firearm at them and depresses the trigger, resulting in the gun discharging, killing Ms. Hutchins, and wounding Mr. Souza.
In that last hypothetical we have no innocent accident, and we have no mere civil negligence—instead, we have, with the pointing of the weapon at the victims and the deliberate press of the trigger, criminal recklessness.
The gun did not go off for unforeseeable reasons, such as a hidden defect. The gun discharged because it operated as designed—to fire when the trigger is depressed. Of course, the gun must be loaded when the trigger is depressed in order to cause harm—but as the tragic consequences here amply demonstrate, the gun was loaded. It would be the duty of the person wielding the gun to ensure it was unloaded if they wished to cause no harm when they depressed the trigger—and clearly that duty was not met.
Second, anyone handling an inherently dangerous object such as a firearm would be presumed to possess the safety knowledge needed to handle that firearm safely around others—a claim of ignorance is no defense when one is handling inherently dangerous objects.
That guns are inherently dangerous is common knowledge presumed to be known to everyone. That the rounds fired come out of the muzzle and travel with lethal force and distance is also common knowledge presumed to be known to everyone. That guns discharge when their triggers are depressed is also common knowledge presumed to be known to everyone.
Because the various common knowledge just described would be presumed to be known to everyone, including Alec Baldwin handling the firearm, when he pointed the weapon at Ms. Hutchins and pressed the trigger (again, speaking solely within the context of our hypothetical, not as a claim of what actually happened), then he was necessarily aware of the risk of death he was creating, and deliberately disregarding that risk, with the result being the death of Ms. Hutchins. (The same would apply, of course, to Alec Baldwin’s violation of the gun handling safety rule of presuming at all times that a gun is loaded.)
When you are aware you are creating a risk of death, deliberate disregard that risk, and death results—that’s the very definition of criminal recklessness—commonly referred to as involuntary manslaughter.
Mr. Branca goes on to discuss the implications of Alec Baldwin being the producer as well as the shooter.
By the way, before I move on to discussing criminal recklessness, there’s another factor in this tragic event that will likely play a role in civil liability, and perhaps criminal liability, if any, for Alec Baldwin.
so, Alec Baldwin was both the actor handling the firearm when it discharged—and an actor might argue that he is at the “bottom” of the safety responsibility ladder for something like a movie set—but he was also a co-producer for the film—which would place him at the “top” of the safety responsibility ladder.
In theory, an actor at the “bottom” and the producer at the “top” might each point their finger at each other in the case of a tragic event like this. That is, the actor might argue that the producer ought to have had better safety protocols in place, and the producer might argue that the actor had the ultimately responsibility for safe handling of the firearm.
In this case, however, Alec Baldwin occupies both seats. So he can point his finger in this manner if he wishes, but ultimately he’ll be pointing it at himself.
Again I urge you to read the entire article to get the full picture. As Mr. Branca points out, we don’t yet have all the facts, but we know the right questions that will be asked to arrive at a legal charge, or no charge at all.