Updated 3:08 p.m. PDT: The family of Sarah Jones, the camera assistant killed during filming of the film “Midnight Rider,” has filed a lawsuit against the film’s director, producers, some of its crew, Gregg Allman, distributor Open Road Films and the companies that own the railroad tracks and surrounding land.
The suit, which also includes charges of negligence, asks for unspecified damages for Jones’ death and pain and suffering, plus punitive damages.
(Read the full lawsuit here)
The suit alleges that director Randall Miller and the defendants, including location manager Charles Baxter, executive producer Jay Sedrish, first assistant director Hillary Schwartz and cinematographer Mike Ozier, failed to obtain permission for the production to be on the railroad bridge where the fatal accident occurred, and that they concealed that fact and the danger of their shooting plans from the rest of the crew by leading them to think they would be working on the tracks with the permission of the railroad.
Says the complaint: “In fact, the ‘Midnight Rider’ Defendants falsely informed, or gave the impression to, the cast and crew, including Sarah, that they had received permission to conduct filming on the railroad tracks,” so the crew believed they had permission to be there.
The suit was filed Wednesday afternoon in Chatham County, Ga., by Jones’s parents, Richard and Elizabeth Jones, and her estate.
Also named as defendants are Open Road Films; WME BMI holdings (as the loan-out corporation for Ozier); Randall Miller’s production company, Unclaimed Freight; the film’s producer and writer, Jody Savin; executive producers Michael Lehman and Don Mandrik; Film Allman Inc.; Meddin Studios and its co-founder Jeffrey Gant; CSX railroad; Rayonier, the paper company that owns the land around the tracks; and whatever loan-out corporations any of the defendants use.
Authorities have not yet decided whether to file criminal charges in the case. Sheriff’s investigators turned over their findings to the district attorney, who reviewed the file and returned the case to the Sheriff’s office, asking for more information.
The complaint alleges that the production failed to take proper safety precautions or hold a safety meeting before shooting; did not post lookouts up the tracks to warn of oncoming trains; and did not have an on-site medic present at filming.
Jones died on Feb. 20, just minutes into the first day of shooting of the Gregg Allman biopic. The crew was shooting a dream sequence in which a hospitalized Gregg Allman sees his dead brother Duane on a bridge. The location was a trestle over the Altamaha River with only a narrow service gangway for pedestrians.
According to the complaint, an employee of Rayonier, the company that owns the land around the tracks, told the defendants only two trains would pass on the tracks per day. In fact, the line gets 10 to 12 trains in a typical day and is one of the busiest freight lines in Georgia.
After waiting for two trains to pass, the production went onto the bridge thinking that the tracks would probably be unused for the rest of the day. The production placed a hospital bed on the railroad tracks for the dream scene. During shooting with star William Hurt, an oncoming train blew its whistle. The crew had been warned that if they heard a train whistle, they would have a minute to clear. But the train arrived in less than a minute, and the crew did not have time to clear people from the bridge or the bed from the tracks.
The train struck the bed, turning its metal parts into shrapnel. Several crew members suffered injuries as they were hit by flying metal or the train itself. Jones was hit by a piece of metal and knocked into the path of the train. She was struck by the train and killed. Other crew members required emergency treatment and/or hospitalization.
Production was suspended after the accident, and the crew disbanded. William Hurt withdrew from the production. Gregg Allman filed suit against the producers, claiming that their deal for his life rights had expired; that suit was settled after one day of trial proceedings. On the stand, Randall Miller testified, “I did not know it was a live train trestle,” and said, “We were told there were two trains from Rayonier coming through, and no more trains that day.”
Schwartz was named because safety is part of the the first assistant director’s job description and the first a.d. is responsible for holding safety meetings before shooting. Baxter was named because he was responsible for obtaining permissions, and Ozier because he was head of the camera department, where Jones was employed.
The complaint alleges CSX knew the “Midnight Rider” shoot would be around its tracks and bridge on Feb. 20 but failed to send a representative to get them off the tracks; and that the two trains that passed by the scene before the accident failed to provide warning to trains behind them on the tracks, though the film crew was visible as they passed.
The homicide investigation is focusing on the question of whether the production had permission — or thought it had permission — to be on the trestle for shooting. The paper company that owns the land surrounding the accident scene, Rayonier, gave the production permission to shoot on its property, but Rayonier does not own the tracks or trestle. Railroad CSX owns the tracks and trestle.
After the accident, CSX told Wayne County sheriff’s investigators that it had refused permission for the production to use its tracks and claimed it had “electronic correspondence” to prove it. However, the film’s producers have suggested they received emails from the railroad that either stated or implied consent. None of those messages have been made public.
Following the accident, Jones became a symbol of unsafe on-set working conditions. Her death prompted a “Slates for Sarah” page on Facebook (as second camera assistant, part of Jones’ job was to hold the slateboard) that has received photos from sets around the world featuring “RIP Sarah” and “We are Sarah” messages. There is an effort to name the first shot of the shooting day ‘The Jonesy” and make it a moment to pause and check safety. There have been vigils, rallies and even a campaign to get her included in the Academy Awards necrology, which would have been an unprecedented honor for such a junior figure in the industry. She was not included by the Oscarcast but it put up a lower-third graphic referring viewers to the Web for more on her.
Correction: October 9, 2014 6:20 p.m. A previous version of the story misspelled the name of producer Michael Lehman.