LOS ANGELES (AP) — As hundreds of names scrolled up the screen after 2012’s “The Avengers,” moviegoers who remained glued to their seats for a taste of the next treat in Marvel’s superhero universe didn’t know one name was missing — that of John Suttles, a truck driver who died helping bring the $1.5 billion blockbuster to theaters.
Every year, workers on both sides of the camera are maimed, burned, break bones and even die striving to deliver entertainment that packs multiplexes and commands top TV ratings. Injuries come not just from obvious risks such as stunts and explosives, but from falls off ladders, toppled equipment and machines without safety guards.
Yet in an industry where virtually everything is tallied and every success is touted, set accidents remain largely hidden and the consequences usually amount to mere thousands of dollars in fines paid out of multimillion-dollar budgets.
The Associated Press determined that, since 1990, at least 43 people have died on sets in the U.S. and more than 150 have been left with life-altering injuries, numbers derived by combing through data from workplace and aviation safety investigations, court records and news accounts. And those figures almost certainly don’t tell the entire story: The AP found several instances in which major accidents either weren’t reflected in investigation records or did not appear in an Occupational Safety and Health Administration database of the most serious set accidents.
Several fatal accidents in the U.S. — all outside of the traditional production centers of California and New York — were missing from the database, the most glaring being the 1993 shooting death of actor Brandon Lee during the filming of the movie “The Crow.” That omission came despite OSHA officials in North Carolina amassing a 1,500-page investigative file on Lee’s death. An agency spokesman blamed a clerical error.
Internationally, at least 37 people have died in filming accidents since 2000, including a worker killed Aug. 26 on the Budapest set of the “Blade Runner” sequel and two stuntmen who drowned in India this November. Many more have been seriously injured. No entity compiles data on international filming accidents, so the AP’s tally relied on news accounts and lawsuits.
Injuries to actors, such as the concussion and facial injuries Dylan O’Brien sustained in April in Canada while shooting a sequel in the “Maze Runner” film series, do gain the public’s attention. And some, like Harrison Ford’s broken leg suffered on the London set of the seventh “Star Wars” film in 2014, are even discussed openly during the film’s marketing campaign.
That’s not the case, however, when workers behind the camera are hurt.
“I think it’s always been something that’s been swept under the rug,” said Stephen Farber, a film critic and journalist who chronicled the aftermath of the 1982 “Twilight Zone” helicopter crash that killed actor Vic Morrow and two child actors.
As with most workplace accidents — whether they take place on a movie set, a factory or a farm — OSHA is the investigating body.
The death of Brandon Lee, who was martial arts superstar Bruce Lee’s son, garnered worldwide attention and prompted changes on how firearms are treated on sets. Yet it also illustrates the paltry sums companies face after serious accidents. OSHA fined the company making the “The Crow” $84,000 — the highest fine levied since 1990 — but later reduced the penalty to $55,000. “The Crow” grossed more than $50 million.
OSHA assessed Paramount Pictures $21,000 after the 2011 death of a worker killed while operating an aerial platform in Louisiana during production of the film “G.I. Joe: Retaliation.” Almost five years later, that penalty is still being contested. Meanwhile, “G.I. Joe” has grossed more than $122 million in North America alone.
The agency’s fines often are fiercely contested by studios and production companies, and prosecutions are rarely pursued. Most workers are legally barred from suing, and those that do encounter the reluctance of witnesses to come forward for fear of being rendered unemployable in the ultra-competitive entertainment industry.
The AP’s review found that in nearly half the instances where OSHA fined studios or production companies after a serious accident, the penalty was reduced. The agency assessed roughly $404,000 in fines for 15 fatal accidents, with those penalties eventually knocked down to $236,000.
As with other big companies, OSHA’s fines levied on the film industry amount to “not even a footnote in their financial reports,” said Charles Jeffress, a former top administrator for the agency.
Hassan Adan, a regional manager for Cal/OSHA, California’s workplace safety agency, said settlements are determined on a case-by-case basis and are intended to correct dangerous situations. “We try to err on the side of safety,” he said.
Some within the industry say that, along with concerns about workers’ well-being, heftier cost-related factors are a greater incentive for safety on the set.
“Producers never want to have any accident during the filming of a motion picture. It can be expensive,” said Richard Charnley, a veteran entertainment attorney who has handled several injury cases. “They’re valuable people. Sometimes you’re paying hundreds of thousands a day to film.”
J.J. Abrams, who has produced and directed major blockbuster movies — including entries in the “Star Trek” and “Star Wars” franchises — said nothing is more important than crew safety, “whether you’re on a spaceship or a movie set.”
“Accidents happen and so there’s that category. And then there are accidents waiting to happen,” he said. “I think that film crews have done extraordinary job preventing the accidents waiting to happen.”
On May 6, 2011, John Suttles had climbed onto the back of a truck at Universal Studios in Los Angeles to check a load destined for an “Avengers” set in New Mexico. He fell backward onto the pavement, fracturing his skull, and died the following day.
Suttles had just a few hours of sleep before he was called back to the studio lot to pick up the Marvel load, his daughter Lanette Leon said. He’d been working on the film for weeks, even ducking out early from his 65th birthday party a month earlier to make a delivery for the then-secretive film that would cement Marvel’s dominance at the summer box office.
“I would make a wish, but all my wishes have come true,” he told friends and family before blowing out the candles on his cake.
After Suttles’ death, family members struggled to get answers, including unsuccessfully attempting to obtain security footage of the accident.
The Cal/OSHA investigation ultimately found two safety violations — not having proper hand-holds on the back of the truck and not supplying drivers with first-aid kits. The film company, affiliated with the Walt Disney Company, paid a $745 fine.
Disney would not respond to specific questions, but issued a statement saying, “The safety of our cast and crew is always a top priority and we expect the highest standards of compliance from our production teams to ensure it.” Marvel offered no comment.
Leon said her only interaction with the companies was going through the arduous process of securing enough workers compensation money to cover her son’s schooling, which Suttles had been paying for. The production didn’t give crew members time off to attend Suttles’ funeral, although many workers provided donations to cover the costs, Leon said, and no contribution was made by Marvel or Disney.
“It was very disheartening to see that in the end, that they treated him like a number,” she said.
“The Lone Ranger” was another Disney film with blockbuster ambitions. But instead of breaking box-office records, it notched the distinction of paying the highest fine related to a set accident in the AP’s count — a $61,445 penalty for the death of diver Michael Bridger, who drowned during production. Despite the film’s anemic ticket sales, the studio made that much money from its share of opening-night receipts from fewer than 50 theaters out of the thousands where it played.
The 24-foot tank that Bridger was called to clean on Sept. 12, 2012, should have posed little challenge for the Redondo Beach, California, native, who had been diving since he was 15. Yet it was in that tank where Bridger, alone and away from the view of co-workers, died.
Cal/OSHA investigators later determined that the film’s production company, Silver Bullet, violated numerous safety protocols, including not offering adequate training and documentation of dives, allowing a backup diver to leave the tank Bridger was cleaning for up to 10 minutes, failing to have a person adequately trained in CPR, and not requiring Bridger and other divers to submit a recent medical examination.
Investigators concluded some of the violations were significant, resulting in “a realistic possibility that death or serious physical harm could result from the actual hazard created by the violation.”
After his death, Bridger was returned to the sea, with his family spreading his ashes at an ocean-side memorial service. The studio didn’t send a card or flowers, his brother Tim Bridger said, and the diver’s name didn’t appear in the film’s credits.
“My sense was they ran for cover,” Tim Bridger said.
As with the “Avengers” accident, Disney did not respond to questions about the fatality.
Bridger said he contemplated filing a lawsuit over his brother’s death, but was told there was no case because he and his mother were not dependents and workers’ compensation rules mandated they could not sue. Workers’ compensation rules make it the “exclusive remedy” for employees who are injured or killed. While some exceptions apply, including if the injury was caused by serious or willful misconduct by an employer, workers and their families are barred from suing in most cases.
Death benefits in California are capped at $320,000 for families of workers killed on the job, but only families with three or more dependents qualify for consideration for that amount.
The family of Julio Villamariona, a security guard killed near Los Angeles on a shoot for the hit TV series “NCIS,” was able to sue CBS because he worked for a private firm, not the studio — and they won a $10.45 million verdict. The studio also paid for his funeral, and included a mention of his death in the show’s credits.
Villamariona was killed when a production van driven by a man with a history of medical episodes behind the wheel ran over him in February 2011.
Like many immigrants, Villamariona had come to the United States to escape danger, leaving behind his career in the financial sector and several businesses in El Salvador to pack boxes and eventually help safeguard “NCIS” shoots. Shortly before his death, he had gained permanent residency and just been hired by a bank.
Family members said Villamariona’s death should prompt increased safety on sets.
“I just hope that this accident helps these companies to be more responsible about their employees,” said one of his three daughters, Yasmara Garcia.
Hollywood used to be a well-defined place, with much of the filming industry centered in and around Los Angeles at various studios, movie ranches and the city’s most picturesque streets. Now, Hollywood is seemingly everywhere, with 37 states offering some level of film incentives.
The state of California requires productions to keep logs of worker injuries. Away from California, however, OSHA considers filming a safe industry and exempts productions from certain record-keeping requirements.
The investigation into a 2010 accident that critically injured an extra during shooting of the third film in Paramount’s “Transformers” series offers an example of the disparity.
Gabriela Cedillo was driving her own car down an Indiana highway when a cable towing a stunt car snapped loose, striking her in the head and causing massive trauma. An Indiana OSHA investigator arrived at the scene three days later and was met by a studio safety officer and an attorney, OSHA’s records show. Relying on witness statements collected by police and assurances that a new tow device would be designed to prevent a similar accident, the investigator closed the case three weeks later without interviewing any witnesses, writing that it would “be a waste of time.”
Indiana OSHA officials said they could not answer questions about the handling of the case, since the inspector and his supervisor have since left the agency. And Paramount did not respond to questions about whether the towing apparatus was indeed re-designed.
Cedillo’s family received an $18 million settlement from Paramount, but she requires a lifetime of assistance for balance and judgment issues, family attorney Todd A. Smith said.
“She was a lovely 24 year old, engaged and with a bright future,” Smith said. “Her life changed dramatically. Her career and marriage never occurred.”
The AP’s review also found cases in which serious accidents during productions outside California were not properly catalogued. For instance, OSHA’s database of fatal accidents still does not include Bryce Dion, who was killed in Omaha, Nebraska, in August 2014 while filming an attempted armed robbery at a fast-food restaurant for the “Cops” reality TV series. A stray bullet from a police officer slipped past his bulletproof vest. An OSHA spokesman attributed the omission to a delay in adding Dion’s death to the database.
Also omitted was the 2012 death of Terry Flannell, who died while filming the opening of a reality TV series pilot for the Discovery Channel at her family’s gun range in Colorado. An OSHA spokesman said the agency didn’t find an employee-employer relationship between Flannell and Discovery. Although Flannell’s death occurred while cameras were rolling, OSHA classified her death as an “amusement and recreation industry” fatality.
Government investigations are key, since they often provide the only detailed account of a set accident that is publicly available.
Kevin Boyle, an attorney who has handled several injury cases, said accidents within the film and TV industry are different from most workplace incidents.
“Usually in a severe injury or death case, there are numerous witnesses who want to come forward to help out the victim,” Boyle said. “When the entertainment industry is involved, witnesses are very reluctant to come forward. People who work for the entertainment industry are very afraid of retribution and they’re always looking out for that next job, so a lot of times these on-set injuries and deaths go under the radar.”
Within the industry, a broad coalition — including the major Hollywood studios and labor unions — has created its own training programs and conducts monthly meetings to discuss safety practices. Many say the efforts have led to improved safety, though several on-set accidents still occur most years.
Stunt performers, like the one seriously hurt July 6 north of Los Angeles while filming the upcoming TV series “Shooter,” are among the most likely to be injured. But just as likely are carpenters, with a number of them suffering partial or complete amputations of fingers, records show.
The AP found 25 instances of amputations occurring during productions since 1990, with the most recent taking place in 2013, when a worker on the TV show “The New Girl” lost part of his ring finger when he was cut by a saw that had an anti-kick safety device removed for unspecified reasons. Twentieth Century Fox was fined $18,000.
Warner Bros. was fined $18,560 after a worker breaking down a set on the movie “Jersey Boys” fell 37 feet from a studio catwalk where a rail had been removed, again for unknown reasons. The worker suffered bruised ribs and required facial reconstruction, OSHA records show, but likely escaped more serious injuries or death because she grabbed a rope on the way down. OSHA reduced the fine to $1,310 after determining it could not prove Warner Bros. knew the rail was missing.
A new 40,000-square-foot training facility in Burbank, California, represents the next major effort to improve filming safety. The site is the home of the Safety Pass program, which since 2003 has trained more than 50,000 workers in many areas, including the proper use of forklifts and heavy machinery in rough terrain, erecting scaffolds, and using gear to prevent serious falls, according to its administrator, the Contract Services Administration Trust Fund.
This year, it will begin an ambitious program to have tens of thousands of set workers take refresher courses. The curriculum covers dozens of topics, although some guilds want even more courses added, including safety on productions involving water.
“The challenge you have with water accidents is that when they go bad, it’s very, very serious,” said Thom Davis, business manager for IATSE Local 80, which represents a variety of motion picture laborers, including grips, medics, craft service and water workers. “Nobody gets a splinter in the water.”
Richard Jones and his wife, Elizabeth, have become set safety evangelists since the death of their daughter while she was working as a camera assistant on the Gregg Allman biopic “Midnight Rider” in Jessup, Georgia, in February 2014.
A few times a year, Jones visits sets to describe the last frightening moments of Sarah Jones’ life: A location shoot turned deadly when a train unexpectedly came roaring down the tracks, with the blaring of its horn the only warning of danger. In the space of mere moments, his 27-year-old daughter was struck and killed. The production did not have permission to shoot on the tracks, leading director Randall Miller to plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter in connection with Jones’ death. He served half of a two-year sentence in the only domestic prosecution involving a set accident since “The Twilight Zone.”
Earlier this year, the Joneses’ evangelism brought them to a crowded room near downtown Los Angeles where the actresses Shirley MacLaine and Amanda Seyfried prepared to shoot a scene for the upcoming film “The Last Word.”
“Please look out for each other,” he told the group as he ended his remarks.
MacLaine stepped forward. “Thanks for reminding all of us we’ve got to protect each other,” she said, before telling Sarah’s parents that she believed their efforts would lead to better practices.
Through their Sarah Jones Foundation, the Joneses also are planning a documentary about their daughter and safety efforts, and they’re trying to get a “Safety for Sarah” logo included in the end credits of TV shows and films certifying the productions put safety first. Several productions — including TV’s “The Vampire Diaries,” which Sarah Jones worked on — have included the logo.
“She loved the industry,” Richard Jones said. “We don’t want to tear it down. We want to make it better and make it safer.”
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