Tom Cruise is known for pushing the limit when it comes to stunts, but now the families of two pilots who died on the set of his film American Made are claiming the actor might have taken things too far.
According to court documents provided to PEOPLE by The Blast, the estates of the two dead pilots are claiming that Cruise and director Doug Liman’s insistence on filming a “high-risk, action-packed motion picture” contributed to the circumstances that led to the crash.
Here’s everything we know about the fatal accident, the ensuing lawsuits and how Cruise ended up at the center of the controversy.
In September of 2015, a small twin-engine plane that was being used on the set of American Made crashed in the Columbian Andes. The film, which tells the true story of Barry Seal, a pilot who worked as a double agent for the CIA and Medellín cartels in the ’80s, was shooting on location at the time.
Three of the pilots hired for the movie were involved in the crash when the Piper Smith Aerostar 600 they were flying went down in the mountains. Alan Purwin, 51, a well-known Hollywood pilot, and native Columbian Carlos Berl, 58, died on the scene, while another pilot, American Jimmy Lee Garland, 55, was left without feeling in the lower half of his body.
According to the AP, the twin-engine Aerostar ran into bad weather after taking off from Santa Fe de Antioquia, heading for a quick flight to Medellín.
“An aircraft carrying crew members crashed while returning to Enrique Olaya Herrera Airport in Medellin following production wrap on the film [American Made] resulting in two fatalities,” a spokesperson for the film’s distributor, Universal, said in a statement at the time.
Purwin and Berl’s families are both suing the producers of the film — Imagine Entertainment, Vendian Entertainment and Cross Creek Pictures — for wrongful death and damages, according to court documents obtained by PEOPLE. They allege that the production companies ignored safety procedures before the flight in order to save time and money.
“Lapses in planning, coordinating, scheduling, and flight safety that were the Defendants’ responsibility resulted in an unqualified and unprepared pilot being pressed into service for a dangerous flight in a vintage aircraft across an unfamiliar mountain pass in bad weather,” state the documents.
The families of both dead pilots are also suing each other — and Berl’s family has also filed a suit against Garland, the only survivor, alleging negligence.
Complicating the situation even further, Great American Insurance filed a lawsuit in California denying responsibility for the accident. They’re also trying to avoid making good on their $50 million general coverage policy, alleging that the fatal flight, as well as other flights during production, might have been performed illegally, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
Adding another layer of confusion is the uncertainty as to who was actually flying the aircraft at the time of the crash. Berl’s family’s suit names Garland as the pilot — a claim Garland denies to The Hollywood Reporter, saying he was there “as a mechanic.” The Purwin family suit, meanwhile, says Purwin was just a passenger on the flight. Garland, however, has no memory of the crash and can’t recall either way.
The Pilot Under Scrutiny
As more information about the crash and the parties involved emerged, Purwin’s history as a Hollywood stunt pilot has come under scrutiny.
According to records obtained by THR, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which often performs routine checkups when planes are involved with films, has had its eye on Purwin for years.
For instance, in 1996, Purwin was reportedly piloting a helicopter when it crashed, killing his fellow pilot and business partner. Purwin also had a wide-range of restrictions on his Airline Transport Pilot certificate, which according to THR, “would have prevented him from piloting any fixed-wing aircraft in some of the weather and regulatory conditions encountered during the filming of American Made.”
Purwin was reportedly so well-known for taking risks that he had been placed in a unofficial group of pilots sometimes referred to as the “death pool” — or a group of pilots other pilots considered most likely to die in a crash.
In addition, the Aerostar 600 they were flying had a bad safety record and was known among some pilots as a “widow-maker,” THR reports, noting that the Aviation Safety Network claims there have been more than 260 deaths involving the plane in 191 accidents around the world since 1969.
The Wary Pilot
Berl came from a family of pilots in Venezuela, where, according to THR, his family had fled from Austria after World War II. In some ways, his own experiences growing up in South America in the ’80s mirrored aspects of American Made. Drug cartel members stole one his family’s planes, and when they bought a new one, the cartel returned and threatened to steal it as well if they didn’t sell it first, THR reports.
Berl later moved to America, where he accrued a litany of difficult-to-earn pilots licenses, according to the website. When a family friend approached him with a job opportunity — helping out with some routine flying on a Cruise movie — Berl agreed.
Nevertheless, his family members told THR “he was worried about getting dragged into a contractual relationship that might hinder his life.” But Berl was a highly-qualified pilot known for placing a premium on safety, and his daughter Jenny, 24, told THR he eventually got excited about the gig.
But Berl grew concerned again when his friend, who was working with the film’s producers, told him that they wanted him to fly the Aerostar 600. Despite all of his training, Berl had never flown the notoriously dangerous plane before, and reportedly asked for time to get more advanced training.
Berl’s brother Andres told THR that the training never happened. “It’s not like a car,” Andres told the outlet. “Unless you’ve flown it before, you need a certificate with a trained pilot who signs your logbook.”
In the days leading up to the fatal crash, Berl and his friend got into a heated argument after Berl found out the proper flight paperwork hadn’t been filed as promised. According to THR, Berl initially declined to fly the plane, but on the day of the accident, he called his daughter to let her know he’d be on set. That was the last time they spoke.
The Pilot Who Survived
Georgia-native Garland also had no experience with Hollywood before signing on to work with American Made. A longtime pilot, he ran an aviation company out of his home state, and was surprised when the film’s producers approached him for work, THR reports.
Garland was also a flight teacher, and before long, he was in the air with Cruise, instructing him on how to fly his Cessna 414, which would later be used in filming, the outlet notes. He reportedly said that Cruise “liked to participate in the stunts” and that “he’s a very good pilot.”
Filming in South America was “once-in-a-lifetime adventure” for Garland, THR reports, explaining that he enjoyed his time on set and routinely made the flight from the film shoot in Santa Fe de Antioquia back to Medellin as part of his regular commute.
Despite reports that he spoke to rescuers after the crash, Garland told THR he has no memory of the crash, and only remembers waking up in a hospital nine days later with a laundry list of injuries, including “a shattered vertebra, collapsed lung, herniated diaphragm, 10 broken teeth, broken ribs, a broken jawbone and a cracked skull on both sides of a dislodged eye socket.”
Cruise Gets Blamed
According to new court documents provided to PEOPLE by The Blast, the estates of Purwin and Berl are now claiming that Cruise and the film’s director Doug Liman’s desire to film a “high-risk, action-packed motion picture” contributed to the circumstances that led to the accident.
“The demands of filming in Colombia, together with Cruise’s and director Doug Liman’s enthusiasm for multiple takes of lavish flying sequences, added hours to every filming day and added days to the schedule,” state the documents.
Though Cruise and Liman are not named defendants in the lawsuit, the families allege they were “negligent” in allowing the flight to take place under such circumstances.
The lawsuit also claims one of the executive producers on the film sent a formal complaint to the insurance company about Cruise and Liman.
“DL [Director Liman] and TC [Cruise] [are] adding entire scenes and aerial shots on the fly. Had to bring in Uni Safety to help wrangle them. In the last 48 hours this has become the most insane s— I’ve ever dealt with,” it read, according to the lawsuit.
In a separate email, Purwin called the film “the most dangerous project I’ve ever encountered.”
“You have no idea the exposure TC and the entire Aerial Team is realizing every time we get in the air,” he wrote, according to the court papers. “There’s a very ‘thin line’ between keeping all aerial activities safe and having an accident. Trust me on this!”
The families go on to argue that Cruise could have piloted the plane, calling him “a well-qualified pilot very familiar with the Aerostar and the routing.” (FAA records show that Cruise first got a private pilot’s license in 1994 and obtained his commercial license in 1998.)
Universal Pictures and Cruise had no comment on the matter.
American Made hits theaters Sept. 29.