Recent Ruling May Boost Cases for ‘Midnight Rider’ Plaintiffs

It’s been just over six months since “Midnight Rider” director Randall Miller began serving a two-year jail sentence after pleading guilty to charges in the Feb. 20, 2014, death of Sarah Jones in an on-set train accident. But civil litigation in the case is far from over.

Most significant was a recent decision by regional Administrative Law Judge Sharon D. Calhoun to uphold almost $75,000 in workplace safety fines against Film Allman, the production company that Miller and his wife, producer Jody Savin, set up to make the movie, based on the life of musician Gregg Allman.

Calhoun’s decision was a rebuke to what had been a central defense of the filmmakers — that they were under the impression the railroad tracks and trestle were safe to shoot on, because they were told they would be in the clear once two trains went by that day. When they saw two go by, they went out onto the trestle.

Calhoun called that defense a “smokescreen concocted to afford Film Allman plausible deniability,” noting railroad operator CSX Transportation’s denial of permission to shoot there, and testimony that, on average, 35 trains pass on the tracks each day.

She noted that when the production arrived at the Jesup, Ga., location at about 3:30 p.m. that day, none of the supervisors inquired with security guards as to whether two trains had already passed.

“This would appear to be crucial information for a filming schedule premised on the ‘two trains’ theory,” she wrote.

Jones’ family settled litigation with the producers last year, but a key question is whether the OSHA fines and Calhoun’s conclusions could be introduced in remaining cases. Ron Carlson, a U. of Georgia Law School professor, said the circumstances raise the prospect of a “pre-trial battle over evidentiary admission.”

Some of the major claims outstanding:

Injured crew members: Hairstylist Joyce Gilliard, makeup artist Antonyia Verna and still photographer Izabeau Giannakopoulos each filed lawsuits for the serious injuries they suffered, naming an array of defendants, including the producers and railroad operator CSX. The litigation is still in the pre-trial stage.

Jones family: Jones’ parents still have a major claim against CSX Corp., arguing that the railroad failed to take reasonable safety precautions. CSX denies responsibility.

Gregg Allman: The singer contends that he and his manager were promised indemnification from the production, arguing that they suffered several hundred thousand dollars in damages.

Film Allman: The producers sued their insurer, New York Marine, contending that they exhausted policy limits in a $5 million settlement with Jones’ family even though there were other avenues for coverage. In fact, Film Allman contends that its insurer “sabotaged” the movie and forced it to abandon production, and New York Marine failed to disclose conflicts of interest in its chosen defense counsel, which represented other defendants in the case. The insurer denies conflict of interest and, in its most recent filing, pointed to a policy exclusion for “dishonest or criminal acts.”

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