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Sarah Jones‘ parents are looking for answers, and for changes in the film industry.
That’s why, they tell The Hollywood Reporter, they filed a wrongful death lawsuit Wednesday against several organizations and individuals connected with Midnight Rider, the Gregg Allman biopic on which Jones was working when she was struck and killed by a train on Feb. 20.
“We don’t want our daughter’s death to be in vain,” Sarah’s father, Richard, says. “We don’t want this to happen again. That’s kind of the bottom line. What needs to happen to make sure that’s the case?”
The lawsuit, Sarah’s mother, Elizabeth, says, is “a way of finding out what did happen on the tracks that day — and why did they choose that track? — and finding out what happened. What went wrong where our daughter died?”
Richard says he also hopes to attract the attention of those who didn’t see his daughter’s death as enough of a wake-up call.
“I feel very strongly that what happened in this tragedy did wake up the industry, and I believe that most everyone in the industry that needed to get that message got that message, and I really believe that they already are making changes that they need to make,” Richard explains. “On the other hand, I believe that there are a small minority of people in the industry who don’t quite get it, but they do get the dollar sign. Frankly, this [lawsuit] is one way of getting their attention.”
Jones’ lawyer, Jeffrey Harris, adds that they are really hoping to resolve the competing accounts of what happened the day Sarah died, something they couldn’t do before they filed the lawsuit.
While Harris notes that they interviewed as many people as they possibly could, and consulted public statements and director Randall Miller‘s testimony in a hearing last week over Allman’s lawsuit to stop production on the movie, they couldn’t compel anyone to talk to them via subpoenas, which they can do now.
What emerged from those various accounts were competing explanations, Harris says.
“You put all that together and what you have is a number of people blaming other people,” he adds. “One of the reasons why we’ve named a number of defendants is we have a number of people telling conflicting stories about what happened that day, and the only way to get to the bottom of it is to put them under oath and determine exactly what happened.”
Harris also says that many of the defendants were named because they were producers on the film “who have legal responsibility” for what happens on set, including Allman, whom Harris says had made statements months before the accident that he “had day-to-day control over the movie” and “complete veto power.”
“He as an executive producer has legal responsibility for what happens out there,” Harris says.
In addition, Miller said during his testimony, Harris recalls, that Allman knew the production would be filming on the tracks.
As for why CSX Transportation, which operates the railroad tracks, and Rayonier Performance Fibers, which owns the land around the tracks, were named as defendants in the suit, Harris points out that Miller said in his testimony that the crew was relying on representations made to them by Rayonier that only two trains would be going by the day of the accident; as for CSX, there are conflicting accounts as to whether the company had given the crew permission to film on the tracks. CSX is also named, Harris says, because they failed to follow basic railroad safety procedures.
“When a railroad knows people are congregating near a track, they’re supposed to take reasonable steps to watch out for them — and that includes relaying back to other trains that might be coming along that there are people near the track and that includes slowing down and honking the horn,” Harris explains.
Via subpoenas, document requests and other aspects of a legal investigation, Harris says he hopes to “get through a lot of this smoke and find out who made the decisions that resulted in Sarah’s death.
“This is one of those cases … where you have multiple decisions that are made that result in a tragedy. What the jury’s got to do is sort it out. The jury’s got to ultimately decide who is responsible and in what percentage,” Harris adds.
Harris says he had access to the preliminary investigatory file compiled by the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office, which turned its investigation over to the district attorney, who has yet to decide whether any criminal charges should be filed.
Sarah’s parents, though, say they aren’t frustrated that it’s taken the authorities more than three months to make a decision about this.
“We are determined to be patient to see that what happens happens properly,” Richard says. “I don’t know what details they have. I can appreciate that they have a lot of information to sort through. They may have conflicting accounts of the day as we’ve heard. So they may have to sort through that. I want them to make a good and proper decision, and we don’t mind being patient.”
In the months since Sarah’s death, William Hurt, who was set to play Allman, pulled out of the project. Richard says that Hurt has reached out directly to him and Sarah’s mother.
“In fact, he attended Sarah’s funeral, and we did speak to him,” Richard says of Hurt. “I would say that he’s been very supportive to family, very understanding. I would say that he’s extremely upset over what happened. … According to Mr. Hurt, [he and Sarah] did talk and seemed to like each other quite a lot.”
Richard also says that they had spoken to Miller briefly one additional time since the director’s initial contact with the family the day Sarah died.
“Again, he said he was sorry,” Richard says of that second interaction.
Allman and Miller last week reached an agreement for Allman to drop his suit to halt production on the film. It’s unclear what the terms of that agreement are, but Harris says that Sarah’s parents don’t want Midnight Rider to be completed.
“Gregg Allman has reached out through representatives directly to us expressing his desire to stop it,” Harris adds.
Harris declined to say what they were hoping for in terms of a dollar figure for damages awarded in the case, noting that under Georgia law, the value of a person’s life has to be determined by a jury.
He added that there haven’t yet been any substantive settlement discussions.
Sarah’s parents explained that the lawsuit is part of a multifaceted approach they’re taking to be advocates for on-set safety and better educate others.
“What we’re trying to do here, starting with the death of our daughter, is we’re trying to spin it into something positive,” Richard explains. “That being correcting some inadequacies and some apparent issues within the film industry leading to some things that are not safe.”
Richard notes that he and Elizabeth are working with Sarah’s high school, which is putting in a new film-study course that focuses on safety, and last week, they donated some of Sarah’s equipment to a technical college in South Carolina. They’re also hoping to make set safety a more prominent concern in the entertainment industry.
“We want the producers and people who create films to plan on safety, to implant it into the planning process,” Richard says. “We believe that safety should never be an afterthought, but rather, it should become part of the culture, woven into the very fabric of the industry.”
Of his daughter, Richard says, “Sarah was an exceptional young lady. … We lost a wonderful daughter, and I think the industry lost a great talent.”
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