January 27, 2023

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Seyfarth summary: The recent involuntary manslaughter charges against actor Alec Baldwin are a reminder of state criminal liability for manslaughter that can result from work-related injuries. Management and employees involved in an accident face criminal prosecution, imprisonment and large fines.

The legal ramifications of the unfortunate death at work continue. On January 20, 2023, New Mexico state attorneys announced that they would indict actor Alec Baldwin and gunsmith Hannah Gutierrez-Reed with involuntary manslaughter in the October 2021 death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the set of the film Rust.

Law enforcement officers can base an indictment solely on an OSHA citation that alleges: (1) the employer violated a particular applicable standard, (2) the employer did so intentionally, and (3) the violation caused the death of an employee . 29 U.S.C. § 666(e). The Department of Labor has entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with the Department of Justice to ensure effective prosecution of criminal incidents in the workplace. Federal OSHA’s criminal liability carries a penalty of six months in prison, a $500,000 corporate fine and a $250,000 personal fine.

Regarding the filming of “Rust,” New Mexico’s OSHA issued a “premeditated” subpoena in the amount of $136,793.00 for failing to comply with film industry safety bulletins issued by the Industry Wide Labor-Management Safety Committee were published. The appeal, issued under the New Mexico OSHA General Duty Clause, is currently being appealed. No criminal charges were brought based solely on the citation.

As the Rust case demonstrates, state agencies can review criminal charges related to a workplace death even when no criminal charges are based on OSHA citations. After a death is reported, state authorities routinely open parallel criminal investigations. Many states (here New Mexico) then file manslaughter charges against managers and employees involved in an accident.

In the Rust case, the defendants face charges of involuntary manslaughter with a firearm under New Mexico law, which carries a mandatory five-year prison sentence. The involuntary manslaughter charges, which involve killing while a defendant is acting negligently or without caution, reflect the “plain indifference” standard for “premeditated” action, as defined in an OSHA subpoena. Special prosecutors for the case have been quoted by the media as saying there is a “pattern of criminal disregard for security” that similarly reflects the “premeditated” standard.

The recent indictments should remind employers of the importance of reviewing applicable safety standards, supervising employees who are exposed to such hazards and enforcing employer safety regulations. The fees also serve as a powerful reminder that every individual in an organization is seen as responsible for security and has a duty to comply with applicable security standards.

Employers who have workplace fatalities should consult qualified legal counsel and effectively manage inspections to minimize the likelihood of receiving premeditated subpoenas. OSHA’s employee reviews will be critical and employees must be adequately prepared – OSHA will not inform employees about this
miranda rights and may attempt to interview employees without management or company legal counsel present. If the employer receives a premeditated subpoena relating to a death, the employer should appeal and take all necessary steps to overturn the premeditated classification.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the topic. In relation to your specific circumstances, you should seek advice from a specialist.

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