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A railroad owner must pay $3.9 million to the family of a movie worker killed on a Georgia railroad trestle in 2014, a jury decided Monday in civil verdict that found the company shared in the blame for the deadly freight train collision even though the film crew was trespassing.
The parents of Sarah Jones sued CSX Transportation in Chatham County State Court, saying the railroad shared in the blame for their daughter’s death. The 27-year-old camera assistant died in the crash on Feb. 20, 2014, during the first day of shooting Midnight Rider, an ill-fated movie about Gregg Allman of The Allman Brothers Band.
“This trial disclosed a number of exceptionally poor judgments and ignored opportunities by CSX Transportation to prevent this tragedy,” Jones’ parents, Richard and Elizabeth Jones of Columbia, South Carolina, said in a written statement.
CSX plans to appeal the jury’s decision, said Rob Doolittle, a spokesman for the Jacksonville, Florida-based company.
“CSX is deeply sympathetic to the terrible loss suffered by the family of Ms. Sarah Jones, but respectfully disagrees with the conclusions reached by the jury today,” Doolittle said.
The film’s director, Randall Miller, served a year in jail after pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter and criminal trespassing charges. Jones’ parents, Richard and Elizabeth Jones of Columbia, South Carolina, said CSX also failed to take precautions that could have averted the crash on a trestle spanning the Altamaha River near Jesup in southeast Georgia.
Jones’ family had also sued Miller, his fellow production managers and several other defendants. All of them except for CSX settled or otherwise resolved their cases out of court. The jury Monday found $11.2 million to be the total value of Jones’ life as well as her pain and suffering. Jurors decided CSX — the only defendant on trial — bore 35 percent of the responsibility for Jones’ death, making the railroad’s share $3.9 million.
The jury in Savannah heard testimony during the civil trial that two CSX trains rolled through while the movie crew stood on both sides of the tracks within an hour before the crash, but the operators of those trains never called dispatchers to alert them. Jurors also were shown a CSX policy that train operators are expected to immediately report trespassers on its tracks and rights of way.
Jeffrey Harris, the Jones family’s attorney, also noted that the train’s brakes weren’t applied until after the locomotive struck a hospital bed the filmmakers had placed across the tracks. Actor William Hurt, hired to play Allman, had been lying in the bed before the train came upon the crew at 53 mph. Hurt escaped unharmed.
Six crew members were injured by flying shrapnel from the bed. Jones was run over.
Hurt appeared in Savannah and sat outside the courtroom during the trial’s first day last week. But the actor was never called to testify in the case.
CSX attorneys blamed the crash entirely on the filmmakers. CSX officials had twice sent production managers emails denying them permission to shoot on the bridge. Three of Jones’ co-workers testified that production managers never told the rest of the crewmembers, who went onto the railroad trestle unaware they were trespassing.
CSX lawyers argued that evidence of failures to follow company policies doesn’t prove the railroad was negligent. They said the engineer in the crash didn’t brake sooner because he was afraid the train would derail and possibly dump its payload of shipping containers onto people who were huddled on the bridge’s narrow walkway beside the tracks.
The crash ended production on Midnight Rider, which has remained in limbo. Allman went to court to prevent Miller from reviving it before he died in May at age 69.
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