'Midnight Rider' Director's New Film Is Targeted as the Work of a "Murderer," Spurring Libel Threats

Randall Miller -2013-Getty -H 2016
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Midnight Rider will forever be a cautionary tale for moviemakers, but after the death of camera assistant Sarah Jones during the infamous production, can the film's director, Randall Miller, ever be absolved of ultimate responsibility? That question is now surfacing as Miller pursues new projects.

Jones died on a railway trestle bridge in Georgia on Feb. 20, 2014. The following year, Miller pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter as part of a deal with prosecutors for charges against his wife, producer Jody Savin, to be dismissed. Now out of jail, Miller has pursued vindication in various forms. He also found time to helm a new movie, Higher Grounds, which reportedly has led authorities to question whether a European shoot violated the terms of his probation.

The producers of Higher Grounds are now fighting one woman who wants to make sure that the world is aware of Miller's involvement.

Molly Coffee, a production designer in Georgia and a friend of Jones', created a website that highlights the new film and retells the story of how Jones lost her life. Coffee also points to several recent news articles about Higher Grounds on the Facebook page "Safety for Sarah." 

The producers weren't happy with a Higher Grounds poster that Coffee had created and posted online.

"This movie poster makes the patently false and libelous claim that Higher Grounds is 'made by murderers,' " states a May 29 letter from attorney Matthew Heerde, representing Foam Productions. "Obviously, no one associated with Higher Grounds is a murderer or has ever been convicted of murder. Statements to the contrary on your Facebook post, and the Website and FB Page and other Facebook pages are false and defamatory and are damaging not only to the producers of Higher Grounds, but also to the entire cast and crew."

So involuntary manslaughter is not the same as murder. Courts don't expect people to be experts in legal nomenclature, but is there a broader point here?

"My client’s use of the statement 'Made by Murderers' refers to the director of the film and in the context of the Website and her Facebook posts it’s unambiguous to whom the comment is directed," responded Coffee's attorney Nancy Prager. "That the Producers chose to hire Randall Miller to direct the film Higher Grounds was their choice. To lay people, as well as those in the industry, the director is the most important person on a set."

Prager added, "[M]y client did not just create a parody of a movie poster to express her opinion about Randall Miller’s involvement with the movie. She went to great lengths to create the website to document the facts that support her opinion that Miller’s involvement with the film is wrong and violates the terms of his probation for the untimely death of Sarah Jones ... My client has a First Amendment right to express her opinion about Randall Miller and the film Higher Grounds.”

Despite that defense, Coffee thought it wise to make modifications to her parody poster. Out went an image of the film's actors. Out went the language about how the movie was "made by murderers." Now the film's poster merely states that Higher Grounds is a film directed by Randall Miller, "the man responsible for the death of Sarah Jones."

That hasn't ended the legal war of words.

On Wednesday, Heerde issued a new threat, raising objection to the website's talk of "willful negligence" on Miller's part as well as positing that "Mr. Miller is not 'the man' responsible for Ms. Jones’ tragic death. He was civilly adjudged to be less liable than CSX [the company whose freight train hit Jones], and several other men and women and corporate entities were adjudged liable for Ms. Jones’ death."

Heerde demands removal of the content by 5 p.m. EST on Thursday. (Here's the correspondence.) 

Coffee's camp has decided to leave it up.