ANCHORAGE (KTUU) One of the stars of the Alaska-based reality show “Life Below Zero” has sued producers of the series claiming she was forced to film unsafe segments in support of made-up storylines.
Attorneys for Susan Aikens filed a 32-page lawsuit Friday against BBC Worldwide Reality Productions and others responsible for the National Geographic Channel series. In court documents, Aikens claims a producer demanded that she drive a snowmachine into overflow and was badly hurt in the resulting crash.
“Defendants used footage and materials to create a fictionalized version of the incident and aftermath,” the lawsuit claims, alleging breach of contract. Aikens says that a rescue flight was directed to land miles away from the crash site in order to obtain better footage.
A spokeswoman for BBC Worldwide Reality Productions said Monday that she had not heard of the lawsuit until contacted by KTUU.
"I'm afraid we're not aware of this claim at this time, thus I'm unable to respond," she wrote in an email.
One of a slew of reality shows based in the Last Frontier, Emmy-winning “Life Below Zero” depicts the “struggle to survive in the Alaska bush,” according to promotional materials. Aikens lives at the Kavik River Camp on Alaska’s North Slope, and has appeared on the show since the first season in 2013.
Read the lawsuit below:
The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Anchorage focuses on events shown in season five, which originally aired June through December, 2015. The court filing provides a behind-the-scenes glimpse of how reality TV is made in Alaska, including details of Aikens’ contract providing payment of $11,000 to $15,000 per episode and her claims of producers creating false drama.
Aikens said she clashed with a producer several times during filming in February 2015.
The production planned to film Aikens camping away from Kavik River Camp on Feb. 18, the lawsuit says. Aikens says she chose a camping site but producer Aaron Mellman insisted on a location downriver. Aikens wanted to drive her Argo vehicle to the camp site but the producer insisted she use a snowmachine and sled, the suit claims.
Aikens claims she was forced to leave her pet dog behind at Kavik and that when she suggested that she go hunting for ptarmigan as an “organic opportunity to gain meat and feathers,” the producer instead directed her to pack up her camp and travel the river.
“Plaintiff objected because traveling on overflow is very dangerous and Alaskans avoid it at all costs under normal situations,” the lawsuit says.
“Plaintiff (Aikens) had extreme concerns about her safety in this situation and the direction the scripted scenes would take as a result of Defendant Mellman’s actions and threats,” the lawsuit states. At one point she was directed to remove her helmet so viewers could see her face in the resulting footage, Aikens claims.
The lawsuit continues:
“Plaintiff told defendant Mellman that she would not go through the overflow, due to it being scary and dangerous. Rather, Plaintiff offered an alternative which would look similar. Defendant Mellman refused Plaintiff’s suggestion and a confrontation ensued lasting a long time wherein Plaintif was commanded to say it was her idea that she would go through the overflow at a high rate of speed in order to keep the tips from being caught under collapsing ice.”
The crash appears in an episode that first aired June 15, 2015, a few months after filming. Titled “The Crash,” the episode ends with cliffhanger footage of Aikens sliding sideways on the snowmachine. The Ski-Doo can be seen crashing with Aikens coming to rest several feet away.
In the following episode, titled “Aftermath,” viewers see footage of Aikens that appears to be in the moments before the crash as she prepares to cross ice or overflow.
“If I can take the machine and skate-skate, I might bust open a little hole … and get some fresh water,” she tells the camera.
In the lawsuit, Aikens says she "heard her bones snap" during the crash.
“The defendants decided not to call life-flight, or for immediate pick up in the field with air taxi, in favor of getting additional footage,” the lawsuit says.
On the show, Aikens appears to take responsibility for the crash calling it “a stupid mistake.”
The lawsuit claims that what audiences didn’t see was her request that producers or crew give her a ride to the rescue plane, but the producer insisting that she walk part of the way “to film how much pain plaintiff was suffering.”
The lawsuit claims the shows’ creators and producers broke their contract with Aikens, including a provision that says the “producer will not use the footage and materials to fictionalize an event” and demanding that she “perform acts that were dangerous and life-threatening.”
Aikens is asking for a jury trial and to be awarded an unspecified amount of money.
Mellman could not immediately be reached for comment. Life Below Zero won an Emmy in 2016 for Outstanding Cinematography for a Reality Program.