Heath Ledger's Death Leaves Big Legal Question

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Heath Ledger's Death Leaves Big Legal Question

Wed Jan 23, 2008 @ 10:37AM PST

Posted by Eriq Gardner

Ledgerheath Heath Ledger died yesterday at the age of 28, a shocking end for a talented actor.

His death raises a number of very interesting legal issues. Of particular importance to Hollywood will be the future of Terry Gilliam's "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus," which had very recently begun shooting.

After dealing with the shock of losing Ledger to unfortunate circumstances, the film's producers and lawyers will have to consult with their production lawyers and the insurance firm that indemnified the film to decide whether to recast, restage and/or rewrite the film to work around Ledger's absence, or whether Ledger's death presents an irresolvable barrier to completion of the film.

This is not the first time an actor's death has prompted a producer to negotiate the nature of the insurer's step-in. Some famous examples include Lloyd's of London paying nearly $3 million to MGM/United Artists to finish "Brainstorm" after the drowning death of actress Natalie Wood; CNA's agreement to pay for script revisions, extra shooting, and special effects on "The Crow" after actor Brandon Lee died; and a $14.5 million payment to the producers of "Wagons East" when actor John Candy died of heart failure with 20% of production remaining.

Mary Calkins, a partner in Howrey’s Los Angeles office who has represented several television shows and production companies in insurance recovery matters, says "the insurance component will be a big issue, especially where the production has $30 million potentially at risk."

Calkins believes that the independent producer may have "key man" coverage that pays out in circumstances of death or injury of lead actors, but that "policies typically contain various exclusions, including general exclusions for drug or substance issues."

Ledger's role in the Gilliam film is said to be small but important, and the circumstances surrounding his death have yet to be revealed. These facts could be key to any dispute over coverage.

Worse case scenario is that this turns into another "Dark Blood," the legendary ill-fated movie that was in the midst of production when its star, River Phoenix, died in 1993. Afterward, according to Entertainment Weekly, Phoenix's mother was sued to recover damages, and  the film's rights ultimately landed in the hands of the insurance company, which sealed it in the company's vault and threw away the key.

Coincidentally, Gilliam has had enormous experience with disaster insurance. In 1999, in a movie that almost wrecked his directing career, the $32 million budgeted film "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote" was shut down due to an actor's back problems, finance problems and floods. His experiences with the insurance company on that film was featured in the much lauded documentary, "Lost in La Mancha"

UPDATED: It seems production on the film has been shut down.

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The Hollywood Reporter
The Hollywood Reporter, Esq. blog focuses on how the entertainment and media industries are impacted and influenced by the law. It is edited by Matthew Belloni with contributions from veteran legal reporter Eriq Gardner and others. Before joining The Hollywood Reporter, Belloni was a lawyer at an entertainment litigation firm in Los Angeles. He writes a column for THR devoted to entertainment law. Gardner is a New York-based writer and legal journalist. Send tips or comments to Matthew.Belloni@thr.com

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