Judge Upholds ‘Midnight Rider’ OSHA Fines: Sarah Jones’ Death ‘Was Entirely Preventable’

Midnight Rider Doctortown Trestle Sarah Jones
Mike McCall for Variety

A judge has refused to overturn almost $75,000 in fines against the “Midnight Rider” filmmakers for safety violations in connection with the Feb. 20, 2014 train accident that killed camera assistant Sarah Jones and injured eight others.

The judge, Sharon D. Calhoun, upheld the fines in a decision issued on Tuesday.

In a statement, Kurt Petermeyer, regional administrator for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s southeast division, said, “Bad management decisions have real and lasting consequences, and when those decisions involve safety, the consequences can be tragic. The death of Sarah Jones is particularly disheartening because it was entirely preventable.

Film Allman’s management blatantly disregarded their obligation to ensure the safety of their crew and cast. They were fully aware that the railroad tracks were live, and that they did not have permission to film there. While yesterday’s decision cannot correct or reverse the terrible events of February 2014, we hope that it will serve as a reminder to the film industry that safety has an important, necessary role on every set and in every workplace.”

Director Randall Miller and producer Jody Savin’s company Film Allman was slapped with willful safety violations by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, but they challenged the fines in an appeal to the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.

An attorney for Film Allman did not immediately return a call for comment.

The movie had been shooting on a train trestle near Jesup, Ga., when a train came unexpectedly, forcing cast and crew to flee. OSHA cited the failure of the production to obtain permission to be on the tracks. Two citations were issued: A “willful” violation for the employer’s failure to provide safety measures to protect employees from moving trains, and a “serious” citation for exposing workers to fall hazards while working on a train trestle that was not equipped with safety guardrails or other fall protection measures.

Miller is serving a two-year jail sentence in Wayne County, Ga. after pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter and criminal trespass just before a criminal trial in the case was scheduled to being in March.

Update: The ruling renders definitive conclusions that safety measures, along multiple parts of the production process, were ignored, with one of the most egregious being that production supervisors were aware that they were shooting on live train tracks yet did not inform the crew members of that fact when they were sent to the trestle to capture the scene. William Hurt did question whether they would have enough time to get off the trestle if a train came through, but supervisors “did not seriously address his safety concerns.”

Calhoun also rejects a central argument of Film Allman, that because they were told that only two trains would pass by that day, once that happened they believed the tracks were safe. In testimony, Miller had said that it was the communications director for Rayonier Performance Fibers, owner of the property surrounding the tracks, who gave them the information about train schedules, but Calhoun cited contradictory testimony from Miller on whether he had met the Rayonier official before or after the accident.

“The ‘two trains’ story appears to be a smokescreen concocted to afford Film Allman plausible deniability with respect to hazards to which it exposed employees on February 20, 2014,” Calhoun wrote. She noted that when the production arrived at the location at about 3:30 p.m. that day, none of the supervisors inquired with security guards whether two had already passed.

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

In fact, she noted, 27 to 33 trains come through that portion of the rails each day, one of the busiest in CSX’s system.

She also notes that the production was under pressure because of Hurt’s limited availability, with the Feb. 20 date originally scheduled as a pre-shoot but instead was turned into actual shooting of a dream sequence for the movie.

View Judge Calhoun’s decision in full here.

News of the decision was first reported by Deadline Hollywood.