'Midnight Rider': Sarah Jones' Family Fights to Keep Train Video Public

Sarah Jones - H 2014
Curtis Baker/© 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

In a strongly worded brief filed Monday in Georgia state court, lawyers for the parents of Sarah Jones sought to maintain public access to videos and photographs of the train accident that killed their daughter during production of the film Midnight Rider in February, and to preserve the right of the lawyers and parties in the case to speak to the media.

The filing, which came in response to a motion filed Nov. 12 by the railroad, CSX, primarily concerns so-called train cam video shot by automatic cameras on the locomotive that caused Jones’ death. That video was broadcast on 20/20 on Oct. 31. CSX says the video was “heavily manipulated,” in that “during the broadcast the video was played in fast forward and in slow motion, the color and lighting of the video had been altered, and graphics had been embedded within the video.” The railroad also says that broadcasting the video is a violation of the software licensing agreement that governs the automatic camera system.

Lawyers for Richard and Elizabeth Jones counter that CSX’s motion is “misleading, frivolous, and completely unjustified.” They highlight Georgia case law that imposes a high burden on sealing public records, and say that CSX could have sought a protective order when it first produced the video, but didn’t. They say they didn’t make any of the changes to the video, and they dispute CSX’s interpretation of the licensing agreement, saying that what is protected is the software itself, not the videos.

ABC said previously that it “did not alter the content of what took place in the video.” Regarding changes, the network said “The bad quality video which we obtained was sharpened to make it clearer. We ran it twice in our report and a third time with graphics and in slow motion to give the viewer a better understanding of what happened.”

Also at issue is CSX’s request that the court impose a gag order on the parties and their lawyers. The railroad argues that “Plaintiffs' counsel has also made highly prejudicial and inaccurate comments about CSX that could only have been intended to influence the jury.” The Jones family lawyers disagree, and cite the First Amendment as well as precedent and rules of professional conduct that permit public statements by lawyers.

CSX has previously said it had denied permission to film on the tracks twice, in writing.

The court will have a chance to sort this all out as the case proceeds. The Jones family reached a settlement with the film’s producers and director last month, several of whom are still facing involuntary manslaughter and criminal trespass charges in a case that's set to go to trial March 9. Following Jones' parents' lawsuit, other civil lawsuits were filed against individuals and entities associated with the film by hairdresser Joyce Gilliard and makeup artist Antonyia Verna. Production on the film has been suspended, with star William Hurt, who was on set when Jones was killed, pulling out of the project.

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