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‘Credit’ on $4.5-Million Judgment : Crippled Actress Wins Suit but Cash Withheld

A Los Angeles Superior Court jury Friday awarded actress Heidi Von Beltz a $4.5-million judgment against the director of the Burt Reynolds movie “Cannonball Run” because a car crash during filming left her a quadriplegic--but lawyers in the case said she won’t get the money.

That is because previous settlements add up to more than $6 million, “and we get credit for that,” said Jack Daniels, one of the attorneys representing director Hal Needham.

Von Beltz’s attorney, David Sabih, agreed, noting that much of the earlier settlement money had come from Needham’s insurance carriers. The reason his client insisted on pressing her suit anyway, Sabih said, was to gain a “moral victory.”

Wanted to Stress Safety

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Sabih declared, “We wanted to say that when the director gets an Academy Award and he basks in it, he should make sure that everything is very, very safe.”

Von Beltz, then 26, was doubling for Farrah Fawcett in the desert near Las Vegas on June 25, 1980, when the Aston-Martin sports car in which she was a passenger crashed into a van. Sabih claimed that Needham and his company, Stuntman Inc., were negligent because they failed to provide seat belts and to repair the car’s defective steering mechanism.

Von Beltz has testified that as the small car zig-zagged through oncoming traffic she could hear Needham telling stunt driver Jim Nickerson over a walkie-talkie, “Faster, faster!”

Von Beltz, whose previous compensation included $1.13 million from the insurance company covering Cannonball Productions, sued Needham for $42.5 million on grounds that the director’s power on the set is absolute.

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The first trial of her suit against Needham ended May 8 in a mistrial. On Friday, the jury actually awarded her $6.5 million, but found that she was 35% negligent, thus reducing the judgment to $4.5 million.

Jury Foreman Alan Olsen said the jury believed that Von Beltz was partly at fault because she agreed to the stunt even though she knew there were no seat belts in the Aston-Martin.

Daniels said the jurors were not told of the earlier award.


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