Fatality during filming of movie can’t be imputed to production company

Terry Carter was killed by well-known record producer Marion "Suge" Knight during production of the film Straight Outta Compton. Knight had a dispute with Cle "Bone" Sloan, who worked for one of the film's producers, NBC Universal LLC. Carter was asked to mediate the dispute. After the parties' meeting, Knight ran over Carter with his truck, inflicting fatal injuries. Carter's wife and children sued NBC Universal and other entities involved in the film's production (collectively, the producers) for wrongful death/negligence and for negligently hiring Sloan. The trial court dismissed the case, finding NBC Universal owed no duty to Carter and it was not vicariously liable for Sloan's actions. The Carter family appealed.

Background

Well-known rappers Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, whose real names are O'Shea Jackson and Andre Young, are regarded as two of hip-hop's founding members from the '80s and early '90s. They were part of the Compton rap group N.W.A. and were later involved in establishing Death Row Records. Since then, the two rappers have found success in other industries, including acting, and Dr. Dre sold his "Beats" electronics brand to Apple for $3 billion in 2015.

Ice Cube and Dr. Dre landed a movie deal with NBC Universal to chronicle the rise and fall of their seminal rap group and their role in creating Death Row Records. To contribute to the authenticity of the film and accurately reflect their Compton community, the film included local gang members and featured the character of "Suge" Knight, one of the real-life founders of Death Row Records. At the time of filming, Knight was known to be violent and had been the subject of a restraining order obtained by Dr. Dre. He was not invited to be in the film, nor was he allowed on the set.

The film was shot at various locations in Compton, but the cast and crew maintained a base camp at Compton City Yard. The film's producers, including NBC Universal, hired Sloan to serve as a technical adviser. His primary duties were to recruit gang members to appear in the film and provide security for on-location shooting in gang-controlled neighborhoods. He was also directed to keep Knight from interrupting filming and away from Compton City Yard.

During filming, Knight arrived at the base camp, and Sloan told him to leave. Exactly what transpired next is subject to dispute, but the lawsuit filed by the Carter family is based on the following loosely alleged facts. Sloan directed Knight to leave the base camp, and the two agreed to meet later in the day at another location, Tam's Burgers. Upcoming scenes were scheduled to take place at Tam's Burgers. Sloan, somewhat embarrassed by the encounter at base camp and his perceived inability to keep Knight at bay, hoped to resolve tensions with Knight, who felt he was entitled to profits from both the movie and Dr. Dre's sale of Beats to Apple.

To that end, Sloan invited Terry Carter, a local community member who was well respected by both Sloan and Knight, to Tam's Burgers. Carter was regarded as a "unifier." The objective was to improve the producers' relationship with Knight and resolve issues related to the movie. However, the meeting went terribly wrong. Although the details are unclear, after the meeting between the men, Knight fatally ran over Carter with his truck as he left the scene.

The producers argued that the Carter family's initial complaint and their later amendments to the complaint didn't include enough facts to support their claims of wrongful death and negligent hiring. Despite the family's attempts to change their arguments to show that Carter's death was foreseeable and otherwise impute liability to the producers, the trial court rejected their complaint. The Carter family appealed.

Court examines Rowland factors

On appeal, the court affirmed the trial court's ruling and determined that the Carters' wrongful death claim failed because it didn't meet the Rowland factors or include evidence sufficient to prove negligent hiring since the harm to Carter (a third party) was not foreseeable. The court of appeal opined that Civil Code Section 1714, which provides that a party is responsible not only for the result of his willful actions but also for an injury to another due to his lack of ordinary care or skill, didn't extend to the producers under the facts of the case. The "duty of care" is not without limitation, and courts generally weigh public-policy concerns to determine how far the duty extends.

Rowland v. Christian, the California Supreme Court outlined the criteria for determining a party's duty of care to others. The Rowland criteria are considered the "gold standard" in California. Under Rowland, courts consider:

  • The foreseeability of harm to the plaintiff;
  • The degree of certainty that the plaintiff suffered an injury;
  • The closeness of the connection between the defendant's conduct and the injury suffered;
  • The moral blame attached to the defendant's conduct;
  • The policy of preventing future harm;
  • The extent of the burden to the defendant and the consequences to the community of imposing a duty to use care; and
  • The availability, cost, and prevalence of insurance available for the risks involved.

Of those factors, foreseeability and the burden to the defendant are the most important.

Foreseeability. An injury is reasonably foreseeable only if its occurrence is likely enough in modern daily life that reasonable people would guard against it. To assess this factor, the court of appeal focused on whether the producers should have reasonably foreseen that Knight (a third party) would turn what was supposed to be an off-site meeting aimed at resolving differences into a deadly attack against another third party (Carter). Because Sloan asked Carter to attend the meeting as a mediator and Carter didn't have any previously known dispute with Knight, the court of appeal found that Sloan (and the producers) couldn't reasonably foresee that the meeting would result in Carter's death.

Burden. In the context of wrongful death and negligence, a defendant's burden to prevent harm is based on the extent to which the harm was foreseeable. A sliding scale is used, meaning the more foreseeable the harm is, the greater the burden to prevent it is. The Carter family contended that the producers should have hired security guards for the meeting between Knight, Sloan, and Carter at Tam's Burgers. In California, however, hiring security guards is considered a high burden on employers, and previous incidents are typically required to warrant the need for security. The court of appeal rejected that argument because Sloan had invited Knight to Tam's Burgers, and the presence of security guards wouldn't have prevented the meeting from going forward or the unanticipated violence that occurred when Knight was leaving the meeting. The court therefore concluded that the producers, including NBC Universal, didn't have the duty to hire security for the meeting at Tam's Burgers.

In the 1968 case Rowland factors, the court of appeal ultimately held that the producers didn't have a duty to protect Carter from Knight (both of whom were third parties) and therefore couldn't be liable for Knight's unexpected violent attack on Carter. Lilian Carter, et al. v. NBC Universal, et al. (California Court of Appeal, 2nd Appellate District, 7/25/18, unpublished).

Bottom line

Potential violence in the workplace by or against third parties is a unique issue that usually doesn't get much thought or attention. However, this case is a good reminder that employers cannot ignore potential threats of workplace violence simply because they are made by or against third parties. If you are aware of a potential threat of violence, you should take appropriate reasonable measures to protect yourself, your employees, and any third parties who enter the workplace. It should be noted that restraining orders are often available against third parties who pose credible threats of workplace violence.

The author can be reached at Carothers DiSante & Freudenberger LLP in Sacramento, jbraxton@cdflaborlaw.com.

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