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The parents of Sarah Jones, the camera assistant struck and killed by a train during production on the Gregg Allman biopic Midnight Rider, have filed a wrongful death suit against several individuals and organizations affiliated with the film, including the producers and director Randall Miller.
The suit, which was filed Wednesday in state court in Chatham County, Ga., lists multiple defendants, including Miller and his production company, Unclaimed Freight; distributor Open Road Films; executive producer Gregg Allman and the Film Allman banner the suit says Miller and writer-producer Jody Savin set up to produce the film; executive producers Jay Sedrish, Michael Lehman, Jeffrey N. Gant and Don Mandrik; as well as first assistant director Hillary Schwartz, location manager Charles T. Baxter, director of photography Mike Ozier and Meddin Studios, which provided production and filming equipment and personnel.
Also named as defendants are Rayonier Performance Fibers, the paper company that owns the land around the train tracks where Midnight Rider was filming when a train struck and killed Jones. CSX Transportation, which operates the railroad tracks, is also named as a defendant.
The suit argues that the “Defendants’ negligence actually and proximately caused Sarah’s injuries and death, rendering Defendants liable to Plaintiffs’ for Sarah’s injuries, pain and suffering, the value of her life, and all other elements of damages allowed under the laws of the State of Georgia.”
Jones’ parents are seeking “general and specific damages in amount to be determined by jury,” according to the complaint. The suit also argues that Jones’ parents are entitled to punitive damages because the defendants “showed willful misconduct, wantonness, oppression or that entire want of care which raises the presumption of conscious indifference to consequences.”
The plaintiffs also are seeking the payment of any authorized attorneys’ fees, interest and any additional relief as the court deems appropriate.
Although Jones was killed in Wayne County, the suit notes that the filming of Midnight Rider was based in Chatham County, which is where Meddin’s principal place of business is located.
The suit also provides details about what Jones’ parents believe transpired the day Jones was killed.
The suit claims that on Feb. 20, the day Jones died, the film crew went to the train tracks to shoot a scene.
Although Rayonier had granted the production permission to film, the suit argues, the crew had not received permission from CSX to film on the train tracks along a trestle bridge.
“Despite the fact that they planned to film a scene on active railroad tracks, and despite their knowledge of the danger presented by filming a scene on active railroad tracks, none of the Midnight Rider Defendants or their agents, representatives, contractors or employees, obtained the proper permission or approval from Defendant CSX to conduct filming on the trestle bridge.”
But although permission was never obtained to film on the tracks, the defendants neglected to inform the crew, the suit alleges.
“While the Midnight Rider Defendants knew that they did not have permission or approval from CSX to film on the railroad tracks, they concealed this fact from the rest of the Midnight Rider cast and crew, including Sarah,” the suit says. “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. As a result, Sarah and other members of the cast and crew believed that they had permission to be on the railroad tracks on February 20.”
The complaint goes on to allege that the defendants “failed to take reasonable, minimum safety precautions and failed to comply with applicable industry standards.
“Specifically, among other things, the Midnight Rider Defendants, or their agents, representatives, contractors, or employees: selected an unreasonably dangerous site for the filming location; failed to secure approval for filming from CSX; concealed their lack of approval from CSX from the cast and crew; failed to secure and patrol the filming location; failed to station safety personnel at the filming location; failed to station ‘look-out’ individuals to watch for an approaching train; failed to hold a safety meeting prior to filming; failed to have an on-site medic present for the filming; failed to secure the presence of a CSX representative for filming; failed to warn of the danger presented by the filming location; and otherwise failed to take measures to protect the safety of the Midnight Rider cast and crew,” the complaint states. “By committing these acts or failures to act, the Midnight Rider Defendants operated without minimum safety precautions and contrary to standard industry practices for productions of this scale and for productions involving dangerous filming conditions.”
The suit also details what transpired once filming began, similar to what The Hollywood Reporter previously reported: that the crew, after being told two trains would pass by, waited for two trains to pass over the bridge before placing a metal-framed bed on the tracks. They also were told they would have 60 seconds to escape if another train did show up. But once the third train started barreling down on them, “the crew had less than 60 seconds to react,” the complaint states. “The resulting train collision and the flying debris caused Sarah’s death,” plaintiffs allege.
The suit goes on to say that Rayonier was responsible for activities taking place on its property and by telling the crew how many trains were passing by each day, “Rayonier assumed the duty to accurately inform and warn of the dangers presented.
“Rayonier breached its duty to exercise reasonable care, as it incorrectly informed and failed to warn the Midnight Rider cast and crew regarding this danger,” the complaint states.
CSX is also liable, plaintiffs allege.
“CSX is required by its own safety guidelines to take reasonable precautions when unauthorized individuals are present on the railroad tracks it operates,” the complaint states. “CSX had actual knowledge that the Midnight Rider cast and crew would be around the railroad tracks and trestle bridge on or around February 20, 2014.”
Plaintiffs claim that CSX “never sent a representative to the location to secure the removal of individuals and equipment from the railroad tracks.” And the third train didn’t “take reasonable precautions” to avoid the Midnight Rider cast and crew like blowing its horn or slowing down, plaintiffs allege.
Allman recently sued Miller to prevent production, which was suspended following Jones’ death, from resuming on the biopic, but the two sides settled that case out of court two weeks ago. Meanwhile, star William Hurt, who was not named in the suit but was on set when Jones was killed, recently pulled out of the film.
Multiple state and national organizations are investigating Jones’ death including the NTSB and the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office, which has turned its case over to the district attorney’s office, which has not yet decided whether to file criminal charges in the matter.
Distributor Open Road Film said it has been named in the suit “without justification.”
“This event was a horrible tragedy and our deepest condolences go out to the Jones family, the crew members and others who have suffered. Open Road Films was not involved in the production in any way at any time and we have been named in this suit without justification,” a spokesperson for Open Road Films said in a statement to THR.
A representative for Miller declined to comment on the suit to THR.
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