The complaint in the wrongful death lawsuit filed by the parents of Sarah Jones, the camera assistant killed by a train during shooting of “Midnight Rider,” is a somewhat thin document, with many defendants but few details on what led to the accident.
According to attorneys for the Jones family, that’s the point: So far, there are many conflicting stories about what happened that day, and the lawsuit gives the attorneys the power to begin their own legal investigation into the accident and the decisions that led up to it.
On Wednesday, Jones’ parents, Richard and Elizabeth, filed suit against the movie’s director, Randall Miller; producer-writer Jody Savin; its executive producers; distributor Open Road; rock star Gregg Allman; and a number of crew members. Also named in the complaint were the railroad CSX and Rayonier Performance Fibers, which owns the land around the tracks near Jesup, Ga.
The district attorney for the region where the accident occurred has yet to decide whether to file criminal charges. Jeffrey Harris, the attorney for the Jones family and Sarah Jones’ estate, said, “I was willing to wait a reasonable period of time to see if the D.A.’s office was going to make a decision, but you can’t wait forever. The civil case runs on a completely separate and parallel track from the criminal case. So in order for us to have the ability serve subpoenas and take depositions and submit document requests and do all that sort of stuff, we have to go ahead and get the the case into suit; otherwise we can’t get to the bottom of what happened that day.”
So far, in looking into the Feb. 20 accident, Harris and his firm, Harris Penn Lowry, have only been able to ask people to volunteer information about who was responsible for putting the cast and crew on a live train trestle. They have been able to obtain emails between CSX and the production, view the railroad’s “loco-cam” footage from the train or the footage from the production.
“Most of the information, in terms of the emails that were flying around and the specifics of what was going on that day, we are not going to get voluntarily,” Harris said. “We are going to have to subpoena those, and we are going to have to get people to testify under oath.”
He added, “What is evident to me is that there is going to be a great deal of infighting, and the sort of classic blaming other people for mistakes…All these conflicting stories. The only way you can sort through that smoke is to put people under oath in a deposition and find out the truth.”
Harris said all of the crew that were on the trestle at the time of the accident will be deposed.
The lawsuit alleges that the defendants “falsely informed, or gave the impression, to the case and crew, including Sarah, that they had received permission to conduct filming on the railroad tracks.” CSX has told Sheriff’s investigators that it did not give permission for the production to be on its tracks. The lawsuit also claims that standard industry safety guidelines were not followed, including securing a CSX representative for the filming and stationing “look out” individuals to watch for oncoming trains.
Harris described a process that so far has produced conflicting information.
Harris said that some key questions remain unresolved, including whether Charley Baxter, the location manager and a defendant in the suit, refused to go to the set that day in protest for not obtaining permission from CSX, or whether, alternatively, he somehow did not inform the production that the railroad had denied permission.
The suit also names Rayonier for its role in informing the crew that only two trains would go by that bridge in a day. “Rayonier breached its duty to exercise reasonable care, as it incorrectly informed and failed to warn the ‘Midnight Rider’ case and crew regarding this danger,” the suit states.
“The bottom line is that information (that there are only two trains a day on that train line) is insanely inaccurate,” Harris said. “I’ve been down there to that railroad track, and it’s not uncommon to get two trains in an hour. Anybody from that area who knows anything about that track knows it’s an incredibly active track, and you sometimes will get 15 trains a day.”
Earlier this month, Miller testified at a court hearing in a separate case filed by Gregg Allman, the subject of the film, who has tried to stop the production from proceeding. That lawsuit was settled, but in nearly an hour of testimony, Miller claimed that a Rayonier representative had told them that only two trains would go by that day.
Asked if it was possible that the message was misinterpreted, and that Rayonier said that only two of its own trains would go by that day, Harris said, “Those are the kinds of conflicting stories (we’re getting); we’re just going to have to get everybody under oath and find out what really happened.”
Among the evidence that Harris said may be subpoenaed is footage of the accident taken from engine-mounted CSX cameras, as well as footage from the production shoot. He also said that they would attempt to find out why some inactive train tracks were not used.
Joining Harris in the interview, Richard Jones said that the family has appreciated the outpouring of support from filmmakers around the world via the “Slates for Sarah” Facebook page and the various marches and vigils in her memory.
“It’s been a great comfort to use to see that Sarah’s spirit lives on in a way,” he said “And we are very very appreciative of the attention that it’s received, the comfort that we have received from this.”
Jones said the death of his daughter brought the simmering issue of on-set safety to a full boil. The “Midnight Rider” accident “seems to be somewhat of a perfect storm, I guess you could say. I guess that this was a bubble that was about ready to pop, and her death just brought attention to it in a very special way.”
Sarah Jones’ death has received much more attention than any recent fatal accident on a film set, and Richard Jones attributes that to a combination of things. “I think it’s the fact that the people she did work with directly, they saw someone very special, someone that’s special to the industry — it stung when they lost her.” He also cites the widespread feeling that such an accident “was bound to happen at some point.”
“The saying ‘We are all Sarah Jones’ points to the fact, or it seems that there are so many people in the industry that have had close calls themselves. They woke up and saw that what happened to Sarah could easily have been them, and they relate to it strongly in ways such as using ‘We are Sarah Jones.’”
Richard Jones said he has only spoken to producers of “Midnight Rider” once, on the day of the accident. “Randall Miller did call the day of the accident, the day Sarah was killed,” Richard Jones said. “He said that he was very sorry this happened. He did not offer any details of how it happened, but he did say he was sorry. We have not spoken to any other producers directly.”