A few years ago, Susan Aikens was running a small wilderness camp in a remote part of Alaska when she was discovered by BBC producers who were interested in turning her life into a reality series. Aikens agreed, and is now well known throughout the state as the star of “Life Below Zero,” which airs on the National Geographic Channel.
But Aikens is now engaged in a high-profile lawsuit against the producers, accusing them of contriving scenes to heighten the drama and putting her life at risk. In a lawsuit filed in federal court in Alaska, Aikens alleges that a producer on the show forced her to drive her snow machine across an icy river at 60 mph. She crashed and was thrown from the vehicle. While she lay in the snow suffering from serious injuries, Aikens claims the BBC crew delayed her rescue in order to get more footage.
The lawsuit, first reported by KTUU in Anchorage, contends that her contract was so onerous that she felt forced to do whatever the BBC producers told her to, regardless of her safety concerns. A spokeswoman for the BBC said the company has not yet reviewed the lawsuit and would have no statement.
However, to succeed in court, Aikens will have to overcome contractual provisions releasing the BBC from all claims arising from the production. The contract also states that Aikens knowingly assumed the risks of injury and death associated with the show, including the hazards of traveling in all-terrain vehicles in harsh weather.
“As a result of my participation in such activities, I acknowledge that I may suffer serious injuries, which could result in my death,” the contract states. “Nevertheless, I am voluntarily participating in these activities with knowledge of the danger involved and I assume all risks of personal injury (including death) to myself associate with my participation in the Series.”
Aikens lawyers argue that the contract contains “unconscionable” terms, and alleges that the BBC breached the agreement by ignoring Aikens’ concerns.
The lawsuit details several disputes between Aikens and a BBC producer, Aaron Mellman. In one instance, Aikens alleges that she was forced to work outdoors in a 72-below-zero windchill without a facemask, because Mellman thought the audience needed to see her better. As a result, she got frostbite and had to spend several days indoors to recover, according to the suit.
In the most serious case, Aikens claims that Mellman ordered her to drive her snow machine down a frozen river. The ice was covered in “overflow” — a layer of liquid water — making it extremely dangerous, the lawsuit claims. Mellman and Aikens got into a heated argument, in which Mellman told the safety crew that they worked for him and not for Aikens, according to the lawsuit. Aikens says she ultimately relented on condition that filming for that episode would be complete.
According to her lawsuit, Aikens went into a skid and was thrown from the snow machine. Though she had a broken collarbone and other serious injuries, Aikens says the crew did not call for an airlift because of the expense. Instead, the crew drove her six to seven miles on a snow machine — in 15-to-20 below zero temperatures — because that made for better footage, Aikens claims. She was taken to a clinic before ultimately being flown to a hospital in Fairbanks several days later.
Aikens also accuses Mellman of drinking six gallons of whisky during the shoot, including her own personal supply. Due to her injuries, Aikens says she still suffers from chronic pain and was unable to hunt for food until a modified rifle could be made for her.