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‘Midnight Rider’: Open Road Films Claims It Had No ‘Operational Control’ Over Production

Midnight Rider Doctortown Trestle Sarah Jones
Mike McCall for Variety

Open Road Films, which was to have distributed “Midnight Rider,” claims in newly filed court documents that it had no “operational control” over the production, had not invested any money in it and should not be held liable for the Feb. 20 train accident on the set that killed camera assistant Sarah Jones and injured eight others.

“In fact, Open Road was not necessarily going to have any role in connection with this film at all, including as distributor,” Open Road’s attorneys said in a filing in Chatham County court in Georgia on Monday. “It only had an opportunity to distribute once production was completed and the film was made. Open Road had no involvement with the production, let alone events leading to the tragedy that occurred in Wayne County, Ga.”

Open Road was named among 17 defendants in a civil lawsuit filed by Richard and Elizabeth Jones, Sarah Jones’ parents. The family’s attorneys contend, among other things, that Open Road’s role as a distributor held it liable because it essentially facilitated the production of the movie, and that the distribution agreement specified Randall Miller as the “Midnight Rider” director.

“These arguments are unfounded, and baseless,” Open Road’s attorneys said in its filing. “Due process requires a ‘direct’ connection, not a tenuous ‘essentially facilitated’ or ‘essentially insisted’ connection.'”

The company argued that its role as distributor isn’t enough to connect it to the liability for the production in Georgia.

Otherwise, the company said, “such a policy would subject every distributor of every product to jurisdiction for any harm arising out of production of that product. That cannot be the law.”

Miller, producer Jody Savin and executive producer Jay Sedrish, who are also among the defendants in the civil litigation, are facing criminal charges of involuntary manslaughter and criminal trespass. They each have plead not guilty.

A key issue in the case is over permission to shoot on a train trestle near Jesup, Ga., where the accident occurred. CSX, the owner of the tracks, the trestle, and the surrounding right of way, contends that the production did not have permission but they shot there anyway

Last week, Charlie Baxter, the location manager on the project and another defendant in the civil case, said in a court filing that he was “unable to obtain permission from CSX to conduct filming on the trestle bridge.” He also denied that he “planned to film a scene on active railroad tracks.”

In another court filing on Monday, Rayonier Performance Fibers, which owns land near the tracks, contends that while they gave the production permission to access their property and film there, they otherwise deny any role in instructing the crew on the safety of the tracks.

The Jones family claims in their lawsuit that a Rayonier employee informed at least one person involved in the production that only two trains would pass by on the railroad tracks per day.

Rayonier said in its filing that it “denies that it ever told anyone that only two trains would pass by per day, Rayonier denies that it ever told anyone it knew how many trains would pass per day, and Rayonier denies that it ever represented to anyone that it had a CSX train schedule.” In fact, the company contends that the defendants in the case “knew they did not have permission or approval from CSX to film on the railroad tracks,” although Rayonier does not specify which defendants knew what.

Rayonier also said that the production company, Miller, Savin, Sedrish, assistant director Hillary Schwartz and cinematographer Mike Ozier “planned to film a scene on active railroad tracks despite their knowledge of the danger presented by filming a scene on active railroad tracks.”

The company also filed a cross claim against Film Allman and Jay Sedrish, contending that it was indemnified by an agreement signed by Sedrish on or before the Feb. 20 shoot.

Miller and Savin contend that the accident “was not a crime” and denied that they were careless.

“In the weeks and months that follow when the true facts and events are revealed, people will know that this as not a crime: We never has criminal intent; we would never knowingly or intentionally put anybody’s safety at risk,” they said in a statement in July.