Are Networks and Producers Liable When Reality TV Gets Dangerous?

Are Networks and Producers Liable?Are networks and producers liable when reality TV takes a wrong turn?

If there’s one thing audiences have seen repeatedly on reality television shows, it is people getting hurt.

Programs such as “Naked and Afraid” and “Deadliest Catch” depict people in dangerous and even life-threatening situations. Other times, bystanders are caught up in the action in ways they would prefer not to be. Depending on the various situations that reality TV stars and the people who cross their paths find themselves in, there may be different legal solutions or expectations. For example, some reality TV shows may feature people breaking the law, such as an episode of “Intervention” in which Pam, an alcoholic featured on the show, decided to drive drunk.

When Pam got into her car and drove off, the TV crew members did little to stop her, and however one may look at that decision ethically, legally it was completely within their rights to let her drive away drunk, The New York Times reported. In these situations, the staff members on the scene are treated like witnesses. In the U.S., there is no law requiring witnesses to get involved in a crime, such as drunk driving. Since producers aren’t legally required to stop crimes in progress or save people from dangerous situations, it is difficult to hold them legally responsible for the behavior of reality TV stars.

A&E, the television network behind “Intervention,” told the media outlet that the show has never been sued. This, despite the fact that it often features people in dangerous situations, is due to its focus on drug and alcohol use. The show’s producers do take steps to avoid being accused of negligence, however, such as keeping a family member on call and having potential subjects undergo evaluations.

When bystanders become part of the action

Other times, reality TV stars don’t just put themselves in danger, though. The producers of the MTV television show “Jersey Shore” have been sued more than once after cast members were involved in fights. One lawsuit was dropped after the defendant, Sammi Giancola, left the jurisdiction – Florida. Giancola, or “Sammi Sweetheart,” was accused of punching a woman. In another case, a Superior Court judge from Toms River allowed RICO and assault charges to stand against MTV, the show’s producers and the crew.

While producers aren’t required to step in when a crime is being committed, they can certainly be pulled into a lawsuit when someone not involved with the television show ends up getting hurt. The “Jersey Shore” cast’s many run-ins with the law can attest to the possibility that bystanders file lawsuits against reality TV stars, producers and networks. If nothing else, these cases can result in bad publicity. At the time the “Jersey Shore” was on the air, MTV was subjected to numerous attacks by groups opposed to show’s content.

“Liability depends on whether reality TV stars are employees.”

Employees or independent contractors?

Other times, cast members themselves are hurt or placed in dangerous situations. In these cases, where it isn’t the individuals themselves who create the dangerous circumstance – such as Pam drunk driving – legal responsibility comes down to whether reality TV stars are employees or independent contractors, according to the Seton Hall Journal of Sports and Entertainment Law. If cast members are deemed to be employees, they are legally entitled to workers compensation should they get hurt on the job. Additionally, some state labor laws may allow further protections. 

While there are multiple factors used to determine whether or not someone is an employee, the degree of control the employer holds over the individual is important in regards to reality TV. Some television shows, such as “Survivor,” require plenty of control over participants. While others, that follow cast members more than ask them to perform stunts or compete, have less control, which could make regularly appearing personalities independent contractors. 

Whatever the situation, reality TV stars frequently find themselves in potentially dangerous situations whether they are stranded on desert islands or drinking in a New Jersey club.

For more information on whether the network or producer may be held liable for an injury in a specific situation, speak with an experienced entertainment law attorney.

Otherwise, for related articles dealing with reality TV, check out:

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Anthony R. Caruso is a business transactional attorney in New York and New Jersey with experience in structuring, negotiation and completion of legal deals involving business, entrepreneurs, athletes and performers.

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