BY JEFFREY R. HARRIS AND YVONNE S. GODFREYOn February 20, 2014, 27-year-old camera assistant Sarah Jones reported to work on the movie “Midnight Rider,” a film based on the life of Southern rocker Greg Allman, on location in a rural area near Jesup, Georgia.
On the first day of shooting, Sarah and the rest of the film crew set up on the train tracks and on a railroad trestle spanning the Altamaha River in Wayne County, Georgia, to shoot scenes featuring lead actor William Hurt. Sarah – a talented film crew member with a bright future ahead of her – was unaware of the fact that the film’s director, Randall Miller, had not received permission from CSX Transportation for the crew to film on CSX’s active railroad tracks.
The movie’s production company, Film Allman, LLC, failed to obtain permission from CSX Transportation, the Florida-based railway company that owns the tracks, but set up to film on the tracks and the trestle anyway. Earlier in the day, two CSX trains passed the crew when they were setting up and filming on the tracks. While shooting a dream sequence on the trestle, involving actor William Hurt and a metal hospital bed, a third train suddenly came barreling down the tracks, giving the production team only seconds to flee the narrow railroad bridge.
The third CSX train killed Sarah Jones and injured six crew members in a devastating incident that brought national attention to the dangers presented to both cast and crew in the film industry. Sarah’s parents, Richard and Elizabeth Jones, turned to Harris Lowry Manton LLP for answers regarding their daughter’s death, to hold responsible parties accountable in a civil suit, and to try to ensure that no one else’s child would ever lose their life on an unsafe film set in the future.
By the time the Jones vs. CSX case was set for trial, our clients had resolved their claims against those in charge of the filming of “Midnight Rider,” and Randall Miller, the director, had pled guilty to criminal charges. As a result, securing justice for the Jones family in the case against CSX was no easy task, and the case involved several significant challenges.
First, we had to counter CSX’s defense that the cast and crew on the railroad bridge were on location without CSX’s permission. Even the initial press reports of Sarah’s death had labeled Sarah and the rest of the film crew as “trespassers,” and this reporting occurred all the way through trial. Accordingly, jury selection was critical. It was essential to identify jurors who would not decide the case based solely on the concept that Sarah Jones was “trespassing,” even though the uncontradicted evidence established that Sarah was completely unaware that the film’s director did not have permission to film on the tracks that fateful day.
We addressed the trespasser issue head-on from the beginning of the trial, making it clear to the jury that, just because Sarah Jones and the “Midnight Rider” film crew may have technically been trespassing, CSX retained an obligation to operate in a safe and responsible manner. It was crucial for the jury to understand that a railroad company could owe a duty to someone who was technically trespassing, and to “known trespassers” in particular.
To convey this idea, we focused on CSX’s own policies and procedures. We introduced photos and testimony from the film crew and CSX’s internal documents demonstrating that two CSX trains, before the third and fatal train, saw the film crew on the tracks on February 20, 2014. We demonstrated that none of the conductors or engineers on those trains reported the fact that people were on or near the tracks—a direct violation of CSX’s own policy.
Specifically, on its website, CSX defined trespassers as a “railroad emergency” that must be reported. We were also able to show jurors that CSX violated multiple internal operating rules pertaining to safe and efficient train operation. For example, we introduced CSX’s internal policy that conductors must “immediately notify a dispatcher of any unauthorized outside party on a track or right of way… [and be] especially cautious around bridges and tunnels.”
The “Midnight Rider” film crew set up equipment, large props, and movie cameras on the tracks, so they were clearly visible to passing trains. Due to photos and video taken by the film crew during set-up, as well as video from the dashcams of the passing trains, we were able to demonstrate exactly what the site looked like leading up to Sarah’s death. Through this evidence, we were able to demonstrate that two trains passed by the crew earlier that day, and even though the trains’ operators testified to seeing the film crew, the CSX employees failed to report their presence to dispatch or any other CSX employee.
Sadly, the operators of the third CSX train, which was traveling 56 mph, did not even attempt to slow the train’s approach, despite the fact that they saw something on the tracks well before approaching the railroad bridge. Through the third train’s event recorder, we were able to demonstrate at trial that the third train’s operators did not even apply the brakes until five seconds after striking and killing Sarah on the trestle bridge.
CSX’s defense team countered, arguing that none of this evidence established negligence. CSX focused on placing the blame entirely on those in charge of the “Midnight Rider” filming, arguing that CSX denied the filmmaker access to the train tracks in writing on two separate occasions. This brought us to another significant hurdle in the case.
We had to address the fact that the film’s director, Randall Miller, knowingly proceeded with filming on CSX tracks without express permission, concealed this fact from the cast and crew, and pled guilty to criminal charges for his actions. Several other individuals in charge of the filming, including a co-producer, Jody Savin, and the first assistant director, Hillary Schwartz, were also subject to criminal investigation. However, as our clients had resolved their claims against these individuals prior to trial, they were now non-parties to whom the jury could apportion fault.
We knew a jury would struggle with holding CSX liable, given the actions of Randall Miller and those in charge of the “Midnight Rider” filming. However, from opening statements, all the way through trial until closing arguments, we acknowledged that the filmmaker should be assigned a portion of the fault for his reckless decisions. Director Randall Miller jeopardized the lives of the cast and crew by encouraging them to work in an unsafe environment, on live train tracks, without securing proper permission.
At the same time, CSX bore responsibility for the fact that the company violated its own policies by not reporting individuals on the train tracks on two separate occasions, which made it possible for the third train to inflict fatal damage when the crew was unable to get off the train trestle in time to avoid a collision. Ultimately, we were able to impress upon the jurors one important fact: if CSX had followed its own policies, this tragedy would not have happened, and Sarah Jones would still be alive.
We also spent a lot of time in the trial focusing on the fact that the film crew on the tracks didn’t know they were trespassing. They believed that director Randall Miller was acting in a responsible manner and had secured legal permission to film on the train tracks and on the bridge. We helped the jurors understand that Sarah Jones didn’t do anything wrong and that she was doing her job, in good faith.
As we repeatedly emphasized at trial, Sarah Jones’s death resulted from the fact that multiple parties failed her. In closing argument, we suggested to the jury that they may find that Sarah’s death was the result of errors by Randall Miller and CSX, and that allocating them each 50% of the fault would be appropriate. We emphasized that Sarah should not be assigned any fault whatsoever. However, ultimately, we trusted the jury to allocate fault based on the concepts we had emphasized throughout the case, and we did not propose specific percentages of fault to be allocated to each entity listed on the verdict form.
The jury received a verdict form through which it could allocate fault to Defendant CSX and eight non-parties, including Miller, Savin, Schwartz, Charles Baxter (the film’s location manager), Jay Sedrish (another producer), and “John Doe” film crew members who, in the chaos, may have accidentally prevented Sarah from being able to exit the trestle during the third train’s approach. At CSX’s request, the jury was also forced to decide whether to allocate fault to Sarah for her own death.
We believe the jury in the case did a fair and reasonable job of finding in favor of our clients, returning an $11.2 million verdict against negligent parties, which included $9.2 million for economic losses and $2 million for pain and suffering.
After careful deliberation, the jurors found CSX liable for the largest percentage of fault, 35% of the damages award, or approximately $3.9 million in damages. Director Randall Miller was assigned 28% of the fault; Rayonier Performance Fibers, LLC, the owner of land surrounding the train tracks, was assigned 18%, Savin and Schwartz were each assigned 7%; and Sedrish was assigned 5%. The jury declined to allocate fault to unidentified members of the film crew. Importantly, the jury also declined to allocate any fault to Sarah.
After trial, the jurors released a statement saying, “We carefully considered the law provided to us by the judge, which said that when a railroad has reason to anticipate people on or near its tracks, it must act reasonably when operating its trains. No rational person who sat through the trial could conclude that the trains crews’ repeated violations of CSX policies, and their seemingly careless disregard for human life, was reasonable.”
Following the landmark verdict, Sarah’s father, Richard Jones, released a statement, saying, in part:
“Elizabeth and I have spent the last three-plus years wanting to understand how our daughter, Sarah Elizabeth Jones, tragically lost her life. That search has now come to a close. Sarah’s life was a bright beacon of hope that was snuffed out too soon. We felt that this trial was necessary in order to learn what happened that tragic day of February 20, 2014. It is only with the discovery of what could have been done differently that we might avoid another similar tragic loss of life.
We have learned much from this trial. No doubt that the decisions made by those in charge of Film Allman, LLC were foolish, criminal and, in our view, selfish. That said, this trial disclosed a number of exceptionally poor judgements and ignored opportunities by CSX Transportation to prevent this tragedy. Frankly, I believe that the evidence in this trial indicated that CSX has systemic issues that need corrected.”
SAFETY FOR SARAH
One silver lining in the Jones v. CSX case is the fact that this trial shone a national spotlight on troubling, ongoing safety issues in the film industry. Sarah’s parents made a very intentional decision to inspire changes in the industry in the wake of their daughter’s death.
As a result, Richard and Elizabeth Jones launched Safety for Sarah, a national campaign to increase awareness of the importance of safety in the film industry. The Sarah Jones Film Safety Foundation and the Safety for Sarah Campaign encourage productions to sign an agreement to observe safety guidelines, conduct daily safety meetings and acknowledge the first shot of the day as the “Jonesy,” to remember what happened to Sarah Jones when proper safety procedures were not taken on a film location.
Today, anyone on a film set can call a “Sarah Timeout,” without concern for their job or their reputation, if they do not feel safe or need further clarification regarding a safety issue. The timeout is designed to address concerns that crew members might be reluctant to raise for fear of being viewed as troublemakers.
Despite the challenges in trying the Jones v. CSX case, justice prevailed when the jury returned a landmark verdict, sending a strong message to the film industry that safety violations will be treated seriously and that negligent parties will be held accountable. We were deeply honored to represent the Jones family and to help them get closure and secure justice on behalf of Sarah Jones. ●
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Jeffrey R. Harris is an award-winning litigator and partner with Harris Lowry Manton LLP who has won numerous wrongful death and catastrophic injury cases. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, 912-651-9967 or www.hlmlawfirm.com.
Yvonne S. Godfrey is an associate at Harris Lowry Manton LLP who practices in the areas of product liability, personal injury, wrongful death, and whistleblower litigation. She can be reached at email@example.com, 912-651-9967 or www.hlmlawfirm.com.
PHOTO CREDIT: FLAS100/SHUTTERSTOCK.COM