Movie Stunts on Public Streets

            Several past articles have discussed the use and importance of streets and highways in accessing real estate.  It’s clear that most of the time streets and roads are used for the purpose of actually going somewhere to a destination point, or for the purpose of getting to a point on the map.

However, occasionally streets and roads are used for other purposes.  Sometimes these “other uses” can end up in court.

Several years ago, a California case addressed one of these alternate uses for streets.  This case involved a movie stunt that didn’t turn out as expected.  In that case, the streets weren’t used to actually go somewhere.  Instead, they were used for filming.  The case went to trial, and then to an appeal.  In its opinion, the court of appeal wrote the following.

“Motion pictures remain one of the premier forms of entertainment in today’s world.  Movies frequently entertain through flights of fantastic adventure, heavily laden with excitement and danger.  Motion picture producers and directors are often able to achieve such results by employing tricks of the trade (e.g., animation, trick photography, special effects, and clever splicing and editing). Some producers and directors, on the other hand, resort to photographing adventuresome activities which are nearly as dangerous as they appear on screen and which sometimes imperil those in front of and behind the camera.”

“The motion picture industry has long employed seemingly fearless and hardy stuntpersons to perform activities too hazardous for professional actors to undertake.  Frequently, these stuntpersons achieve spectacular results without injury.  Other times, as here, adventure becomes misadventure.”

It seems that a stuntwoman, who was also a ski instructor and aspiring actress, was hired to do stunt work in the filming of “Cannonball Run.” This stuntwoman was to be a passenger in a 1962 Aston-Martin sports car, which itself was a double for another Aston-Martin sports car used elsewhere in the film. Filming began in Los Angeles, then moved to Florida and Georgia, and then to Las Vegas.  The Aston-Martin that was used in the film was a vintage car, and had no seat belts.  (The other Aston-Martin car, for which the stunt car was a double, is referred to in the Court’s opinion as the “original James Bond car” which was used in filming “James Bond” movies, and was equipped with special features such as machine guns – along with seat belts).

When the stunt car was delivered to the set, it was found to have defective steering, bald tires, and a malfunctioning clutch.  It wouldn’t go more than eight miles an hour.  It was repaired – but no seat belts were installed.

In the stunt, the Aston-Martin was driven by a stunt car driver southbound on a highway where it encountered five northbound vehicles also being driven by stunt drivers.  There were two takes made of the stunt.  In the first take, the Aston-Martin cut across the front of opposing traffic and onto the opposite shoulder, passed the oncoming cars, and then returned to the highway.  The camera operators used their lenses to make it look like the vehicles were passing closer together than they actually were.  This stunt went smoothly, and the stuntwoman thought the car performed perfectly.

After the first take, the director told the stunt drivers to pick up the pace and drive faster.  The director wanted the Aston-Martin to weave in and out of the oncoming cars in serpentine fashion.  Nobody told the passenger stuntwoman that the second “take” was to be different than the first.  Unfortunately, during the second take the Aston-Martin collided with a Ford van, and both the driver and the stuntwoman were hospitalized, with the stuntwoman suffering catastrophic injuries.

The stuntwoman sued for her injuries because there were no seat belts in the car, and at trial her expert testified that if she had worn a lap-shoulder seatbelt, she would at most have suffered fractured ribs.  The evidence showed that seat belts were available on the movie set and could have been installed in 20 minutes.

At trial, the jury awarded the stuntwoman damages of seven million dollars, but found her partially at fault in the amount of 35%.  The trial judge therefore reduced her award by 35%, and due to settlements previously received from other parties which served as an offset, the trial judge entered an award in favor of the stuntwoman of $0.00.  The Court of Appeal affirmed this judgment. The case is reported as Von Beltz v. Stuntman, Inc. (1989) 207 Cal. App. 3d 1467.

Issues of negligence, liability, offsets, and personal injuries involve complex issues of fact and law.  Persons considering such questions or issues should seek the advice of competent legal counsel.

Copyright 2017 ROBERT B. JACOBS