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COVER STORY : In the Line of Duty : As stunts become more and more spectacular, safety concerns are a top priority. Then why are so many stunt men and women injured, and even killed, on film sets?

FIRST OF TWO PARTS: In Monday's Calendar, the world of the stunt performers, their unofficial creed, the dangers they face.

February 18, 1996|Sharon Bernstein and Robert W. Welkos | Sharon Bernstein and Robert W. Welkos are Times staff writers

Sonja Davis died 13 days later.

CalOSHA issued four citations against Paramount and fined the studio about $29,000. The studio has denied any wrongdoing and has appealed the citations.

Sapp and her three remaining children have filed a $10-million wrongful-death suit against, among others, Paramount; director Wes Craven; Eddie Murphy, the film's star and one of its producers; and the stunt coordinator. The suit is in its early stages, with the discovery process just beginning and hearings not yet set.

Many stunt performers choose not to sue when they are injured. Some fear that if they make waves, they will never work again. But part of the answer lies in the psychology of the stunt performers themselves. They live in a world where self-reliance is paramount and risk-taking is part of the job.

In addition, negligence cases are notoriously hard to prove. A jury has to be convinced that someone should be held responsible for something he or she didn't intend to do. When cases are filed, they are usually settled quietly. Criminal negligence cases are the hardest to prove and are the most rare.

For example, prosecutors declined to file charges in the cases of both Davis and Janet Wilder. Two years ago, authorities in North Carolina declined to prosecute anyone in connection with the death of actor Brandon Lee, who was fatally wounded on the set of "The Crow." North Carolina safety and health officials determined that crew members had broken safety guidelines by using live ammunition to create a homemade set of dummy bullets. A piece of one of the bullets became lodged in a gun, and when an actor later used the same gun to fire blanks at Lee, the projectile flew out.

"The degree of negligence has to rise almost to a willful type of disregard for someone's safety," said Michael Provost, the Florida prosecutor who last month declined to file charges in the Wilder case.

Negligence is harder to prove if the person injured was hired as a stunt performer.

"They are aware of the risk, and it's pretty much their business to take the risk," Provost said. "It's not a normal person off the street trying to perform this kind of stunt."

Indeed, the only criminal case in memory to make it to trial was the one filed by Los Angeles County against director Landis and others in connection with "Twilight Zone--The Movie." After a celebrated trial, Landis and his co-defendants were acquitted in 1987.

"It was a very difficult case to prosecute," said Lea Purwin D'Agostino, the deputy district attorney who handled the case. "You didn't have people who went in maliciously to do something. They went in to create a movie. They didn't go in to kill somebody."

Certainly, on that December morning when Janet Wilder stood beside her husband on the set of "Gone Fishin,' " no one intended for her to die. She was newly married into one of the grand old families of the stunt business, and its patriarch, Glenn Wilder, co-founder of one of Hollywood's major stunt organizations, was standing nearby.

Glenn Wilder was playing a salesman in the scene, and Scott and Janet portrayed a couple shopping for a boat. All three were hired as stunt performers.

Scott Wilder held his wife's hand and kept a watchful eye on the stunt boat. His job, if anything went awry, was to yank her out of the way.

But it all went wrong so fast that nobody could help her.

Three weeks later, the Florida Marine Patrol came back with some disturbing findings:

Stunt coordinator Michael Shane Dixon had no experience in boat stunts, and Anthony Brubaker, who piloted the outboard, had just 20 hours of practice and had never jumped a boat up a ramp before.

"Brubaker stated in his job resume that he did not have boating experience," the report said. As he headed to shore in the speeding boat, Brubaker hit the ramp at an angle.

"The boat became airborne, not engaging the ramp as anticipated," the report said. "The boat continued up the ramp, bouncing . . . [and] turning counterclockwise."

The steel-pipe ramp that was being used to launch the boat was not the kind usually used in boat stunts and did not have the ability to correct an errant craft.

"The ramp was not level," the report said. "The north rail was higher than the south rail."

The boat flew through the mangroves at a nearly 90-degree angle and the starboard-side hull struck Janet Wilder in the back of her head. An amateur video shot from the roof of a nearby condominium shows Scott Wilder's futile attempt to pull his wife out of harm's way.

With the exception of a single rehearsal the day before, no test jumps were conducted using the ramp, the report said. In the rehearsal, the boat was not being chased by other boats, as it would be on the day Janet Wilder died, and it was going 10 mph slower.

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