Trial to decide if railroad shares blame in movie crew death
SAVANNAH, Ga. — A movie director served jail time for trespassing onto a Georgia railroad bridge and putting his film crew in the path of a freight train that slammed into the group and killed a young camera assistant. Now the dead woman’s parents are going to court saying the railroad should share the blame, even though it denied the filmmakers permission to work on its tracks.
Sarah Jones, 27, died on a trestle spanning the Altamaha River in rural Wayne County on Feb. 20, 2014. The train collision also injured six fellow crew members as filming began on “Midnight Rider,” a movie based on the life story of Allman Brothers Band singer Gregg Allman. The ill-fated production ended with the tragedy.
More than three years later, a Savannah judge has scheduled a civil trial to begin Monday in a wrongful death lawsuit by Jones’ parents against CSX Transportation. Barring a last-minute settlement, a jury will decide if the railroad, which operated the train and owned the bridge, should have taken precautions to avert the deadly crash.
Richard and Elizabeth Jones are seeking monetary damages in the lawsuit, but have not specified an amount.
Attorneys for Jacksonville, Florida-based CSX insist the collision wasn’t the company’s fault. Investigators found CSX had twice denied the “Midnight Rider” filmmakers’ requests for permission to shoot on its railroad trestle — each time in writing.
Both the Wayne County sheriff and the National Transportation Safety Board determined the movie crew, which had placed a hospital bed across the tracks for a planned scene, was trespassing when the CSX train came upon the group at 58 mph with its horn and whistle blaring. The train hit Jones and ran over her. Flying debris from the bed injured six others.
Attorneys for Jones’ parents argue Jones and other crew members weren’t aware production managers had failed to get permission to shoot on the trestle. They also say the railroad should have known the filmmakers would be in the area. Two trains crossed the same railroad bridge in the hour before the fatal crash. The Jones family’s lawyers say video from one train shows crew members on both sides of the tracks, in “close proximity.”
“Despite the fact that multiple CSX trains passed the ‘Midnight Rider’ cast and crew on February 20, with those individuals in view of the trains’ operators, no warning was given to the subsequent train that ultimately caused Sarah’s death,” the lawsuit says.
The suit also says operators of the train that killed Jones failed to apply any brakes before the collision.
Court filings by CSX attorneys say operators of the two trains that passed the crew before the crash had no legal obligation to alert anyone else. The video shows filmmakers weren’t on the tracks or the bridge, but stood on property that doesn’t belong to the railroad. CSX says its operators had no duty to assume the crew would put itself in danger.
As the train involved in the collision approached the bridge, engineer Michael Ryan saw “what he thought were buzzards up ahead,” according to a CSX court filing. He sounded the engine’s horn and whistle 33 seconds before the crash.
“When Ryan realized that people were on the trestle, he did not apply the train’s emergency brake because he thought the people were off the trestle or in the clear, the brakes would not slow the train down before it reached the trestle, and he was concerned about causing a derailment,” CSX attorneys wrote in one court filing.
Jones family attorney Jeffrey Harris declined to comment prior to the trial. CSX attorneys did not immediately return phone and email messages. A CSX spokeswoman, Laura Phelps, said the company had no comment.
Chatham County State Court Judge Gregory Sapp rejected a motion to decide the case in CSX’s favor before a trial. Sapp ruled a jury will need to decide “whether the trespassers were anticipated or discovered” immediately before the crash. A court document says the case could take two weeks or longer.
Sheriff’s investigators and the NTSB found no fault with CSX. The movie’s director, Randall Miller, served a year in jail after pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter and criminal trespassing. Two of his assistants were sentenced to probation.
An NTSB report on the crash said the probable cause was “the film crew’s unauthorized entry onto the CSX Transportation right-of-way … despite CSX Transportation’s repeated denial of permission to access the railroad property.”