A tattoo of scissors follows a seam along Olivia Jackson’s upper arm, below which the stunt performer’s arm is amputated. It is one way the former South African model brings levity to her life as she battles chronic pain that some days could only be met with tears and drug-induced sleep.
Four years ago, the former Thai-boxer was racing on a motorbike on a disused highway west of Pretoria as a double for Milla Jovovich in an installment of the popular zombie action franchise “Resident Evil” when she barreled into a crane-mounted camera. She was left close to death.
Following a four-year legal battle, the 38-year-old last month won a court ruling in South Africa’s High Court, which laid blame for the accident with the driver of the vehicle on which the camera was mounted. But, in Jackson’s view, it was a limited victory. Under South African law, her only financial recourse now is with the country’s Road Accident Fund.
The fund indemnifies drivers and compensates victims in road traffic accidents but strictly caps compensation for medical expenses and limits payouts for loss of earnings at 9% of Jackson’s annual income, according to court filings. That could be less than $15,000 a year, according to Jackson and her attorney.
“I’ve had so much taken away from me,” Jackson, said in a phone interview. “I can’t ever work again, I don’t have the job that I was extremely successful in and that I loved so much.”
Before taking on her role in the ‘Resident Evil” film, she had been a stunt double for Charlize Theron in “Mad Max: Fury Road” and worked on “Star Wars” and Marvel movies. But, she adds, many of those involved in that movie continue to work in the industry.
“I feel absolutely disgusted in people’s behavior,” Jackson said.
The South African-based production company, stunt coordinator, boom operator and driver on the film denied responsibility for the accident. The writer and director of the movie, Paul W.S. Anderson, producer Jeremy Bolt and their associated production companies were not party to the South African lawsuits and declined comment.
Jackson sued them in 2019 but withdrew her claim, with her lawyer citing jurisdictional issues. Sony Pictures Entertainment, whose Screen Gems unit distributed the movie and was not a defendant in the litigation, also declined comment.
Jackson’s ordeal highlights the vulnerabilities of performers on sets, especially on international productions, where it can be challenging to recover damages for injuries. Although film and TV-related fatalities have declined since the 1980s and 1990s, the number of catastrophic injuries has increased in recent years as production has expanded globally.
Last year, an Atlanta jury awarded $8.6 million to the family of John Bernecker, killed in 2017 on the set of the TV series “The Walking Dead.” A jury awarded $11.2 million in 2017 to the family of camera assistant Sarah Jones, killed in Georgia during the making of “Midnight Rider.” Another stuntwoman, Joi “S.J.” Harris, died after a motorcycle stunt for the superhero movie “Deadpool 2” in 2018 in Vancouver, Canada.
“They’re just aren’t enough people globally with genuine experience in actually running action-movie film shots safely,” said Julian Chamberlayne, a partner at the London-based law firm Stewarts, who represented Jackson. “While producers have chased lower-cost locations, they can’t always get an experienced crew to work in that country.”
Jackson’s life changed forever on Sept. 5, 2015. Along a section of the abandoned highway, separated by a grass verge, various cars were strewn along it to build the scene for “Resident Evil: The Final Chapter.” The movie, released in 2016, went on to gross $312 million globally against a production budget of $40 million, according to Box Office Mojo.
According to court filings, here is what happened: Originally Jackson was expecting to perform a fight scene, but due to rain she was asked to do a motorbike ride instead. In the scene, Jackson had to speed the motorcycle to about 44 mph toward a camera attached to a mechanical crane, mounted on a Mercedes-Benz SUV driving towards her.
The plan was that the boom would lift from low off the ground and then rise above her, with the camera rotating to shoot her passing underneath. In the final of three runs, the boom lifted too late and she smashed into the camera, damaging her left arm so badly it was amputated and tearing the flesh off her cheek, exposing her teeth.
She woke up 17 days later in hospital from a medically induced coma, during which doctors performed life-saving surgery.
Less than a year later, Jackson sued the stunt coordinator and his company Pyranha Stunts, the driver, the boom operator, and stunt vehicle company Bickers Action South Africa (PTY) Ltd. for negligence. In 2017, she also sued South African production company, Davis Films/ Impact Pictures, and the road fund.
The defendants denied Jackson’s allegations and said her claims should be covered by the road fund. Davis Films also said Jackson drove too fast, didn’t take evasive action to avoid the collision and was aware of the risks.
The High Court of South Africa in 2019 dismissed Jackson’s claim against Davis Films and the other individuals, determining that the case would be governed by the Road Accident Fund. The fund covers all users of South African roads against injuries sustained or death in motor vehicle accidents, indemnifying those who cause the accident, as well as providing personal injury and death insurance to victims.
Last month, the judge found the driver, Roland Hilton Melville, “negligent.” He cited expert witnesses who agreed there it would have been “virtually impossible” for Jackson to avoid the accident. As the director had sought to get a “more exciting shot, the insured driver miscalculated the margin for error and his command,” according to the ruling. The decision also absolved Jackson of any fault and determined that the road fund was liable for damages.
An attorney for Melville declined to comment and a representative of the fund could not be reached.
Separately, Jackson had sued Anderson and producer Bolt for damages in Los Angeles in 2019, alleging they reneged on a promise to foot her medical bills and misrepresented the level of insurance coverage available to her. Jackson said she was led to believe that production had “a prudent level of insurance to cover any injuries sustained and resulting losses.”
Anderson and Bolt filed a motion to dismiss her complaint, saying the lawsuit contained “false allegations” to generate “negative publicity.” They said the case had no “legitimate” connection to California, and that they were not directors or owners of the South African production company.
Bolt and Anderson said they had no role in procuring insurance for the movie. They said the local production company, Davis Films, had liability coverage but that the South Africa court had ruled that the RAF was “solely responsible” for covering Jackson’s injuries.
Additionally, they said they never promised to pay personally for all her medical expenses and that the local company paid $248,256 to Jackson and her family but stopped providing support when the South African litigation started.
The Los Angeles case was dismissed after Jackson withdrew her complaint in 2019 when she and legal team realized they were unlikely to be able to claim jurisdiction in California, Chamberlayne said.
Jackson’s struggle to make a significant claim under insurance is a “very commonplace story,” Chamberlayne added. “The industry tends to be as secretive as they can be over the insurance arrangements.”
Back at home in High Wycombe, England, Jackson is supported by her husband, who is also a stunt performer who recently doubled for James Bond.
He helps her through daily physical rehabilitation sessions and repeated doctors’ visits to discuss potential new surgeries.
Jackson has taken up martial arts again, but phantom limb pain from her lost arm and the damage to her skeleton and muscles, causes “excruciating” pain.
The scissor tattoo, she said, was inspired by something Jackson saw online posted by a war veteran.
“I don’t feel awkward about the fact that I’ve got one arm and, in fact, we’re very lighthearted about it,” she said. “It’s important to laugh in life.”
The stuntwoman hasn’t made a film since the accident and is collaborating with a writer on her biography and working on a documentary about her recovery.
But her financial outlook is uncertain. A further trial in South Africa is needed to determine the size of the compensation due to her, a process that might take years.
“If I at least had some compensation that would help me to look after myself, help me to survive for the rest of my life…that would at least help,” she said.