Family of cinematographer killed on SCA film set files lawsuit against the University

The family of Peng Wang, a 29-year-old graduate student at Chapman University, filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against USC and two of its students, Biangliang Li and Ting Su, after Wang’s death on set of a School of Cinematic Arts shoot in April. The family claims that a driver with proper training would have never inflicted such an erroneous accident.

Wang died from an off-road vehicle crash on a large sand dune in the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area. During production, Wang, as well as three other USC students, were traveling throughout the recreation area when their 2022 Can-Am Maverick UTV overturned down the sand dune. The other students all survived the crash. According to a California Highway Patrol news release, “all parties were wearing the proper safety equipment” except for the late cinematographer, who was not wearing a seatbelt. 

CHP officers had previously recommended to the Imperial County district attorney to bring charges of involuntary manslaughter against USC student Biangliang Li. Mario Vela, senior deputy district attorney, stated on Tuesday he will not be following through with the charges, stating to the Los Angeles Times that he has found no criminal offense committed, and that “this was just a terrible accident that unfortunately resulted in a tragedy.”

Wang was unfamiliar with the proper operation and safety protocols required for riding the off-road vehicle. Su had to assist Wang in putting on his helmet. The family states in the suit, “this should have placed Su and Li on heightened alert regarding [Wang’s] lack of familiarity with the proper… safety protocols for the [off-road vehicle].”

USC has a policy that any filming activity that involves off-road vehicles or is further than 50 miles from campus requires explicit approval from the University. Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area is about 230 miles southeast of campus.

When the tragedy occurred, SCA Dean Elizabeth Daley released a statement to the SCA community that the University was “unaware of any such approvals having been requested or provided in this tragic matter.”

According to the lawsuit filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, Wang’s parents alleged that the University had granted the crew permission to shoot in the desert as well as the usage of off-roading equipment. SCA approved a “student certification” for the film and assigned the film a production number on April 5.

Charges for the rental of an off-road vehicle as well as the location of where the film was going to be shot were stated in the approved budget of the short. 

“USC has a responsibility to return the people who make its films back to their families intact,” Wang’s parents stated in the suit. “USC is liable for its negligent failure to exercise control over, and to ensure safety on, the ‘Finale’ student film project. That negligence resulted in [Wang’s] death and the ensuing damages for which plaintiffs bring suit to recover.”

As of now, the family is seeking unspecified damages.

“We are honored to represent Peng “Aaron” Wang’s parents, and look forward to demonstrating that USC needs to improve the way it manages student films in order to adequately protect young people like Aaron from injury or death,” wrote Brian Strange, the family’s lawyer, in a statement to the Los Angeles Times. 

The University declines these allegations, writing a statement to the Daily Trojan that “USC was not responsible for Mr. Wang’s tragic death. We will be sharing the facts about our robust safety procedures and safety record in court.”

Wang was pursuing a master of fine arts degree at Chapman University and passed away weeks before the end of his master’s fine arts course. Stephan Galloway, dean of Dodge College of Film and Media Arts at Chapman University, awarded Wang his degree posthumously. 

Wang helped USC students complete three films as part of a directing class at SCA. Wang had been involved in award-winning films before “Finale,” such as the short “Daemon,” which received the award for the Best Drama Short at the 2020 Los Angeles Film Awards. His final project, “Finale,” was a short depicting the hallucination and death of a man in the desert.