Nearly four months after the on-set death of 27 year-old camera assistant Sarah Jones, the tragedy continues to galvanize the film industry and make headlines — with the focus of many of the latter now shifting to the inevitable lawsuits.
Jones died on February 20 while working on the Gregg Allman biopic, Midnight Rider, when she was struck by a train on a trestle near Doctortown, Georgia. Seven other crew members were injured, one severely. The Wayne County sheriff’s office completed its investigation in mid-May, and subsequently presented findings to the district attorney in Georgia’s Brunswick Judicial Circuit. But as yet, no criminal charges have been filed. The central questions of a possible case remain unanswered as to whether producers Unclaimed Freight Productions had permission to be on the tracks, and if proper safety procedures had been implemented. The tragedy has become a rallying cry for increased focus on crew safety in the production industry.
A summary of the incident and chronology of subsequent developments through early May can be found here. The list below continues the coverage, picking up where the previous chronology left off.
May 7: Memo from American Society of Cinematographers President, Richard Crudo
In an impassioned letter to ASC members, Crudo suggests Jones’ death can be attributed to a loss of humanity within society as a whole, but notes the film production industry is in trouble, “and I don’t mean economically, but spiritually.”
May 8: The Hollywood Reporter – ‘Midnight Rider’: Who Will Pay the Bills?
“The Midnight Rider Lawsuits have started.” Speculating on the lawsuits expected to result from the tragedy, the article quotes one lawyer as saying, “It’s a morass.” In addition to Allman’s suit to stop production of the film, “Jones’ estate can be expected to bring a wrongful death suit against the production entity, director-producer Randall Miller, his company, and perhaps even the railroad.” One veteran insurance broker believes the company insuring the Rider production “has a huge out” if the policy has exclusions “for gross negligence or recklessness, or even for shooting near tracks without a permit”.
May 8: Deadline: Hollywood – Sarah Jones’ Father Says “Thank You” in Letter to ASAC President, Industry
Richard Jones responds to Crudo’s memo, saying the last thing he wants “to do as Sarah’s father is to tear apart the industry that she fell in love with”, and that “safety should be a culture, woven into the fabric of the industry.” Jones expresses his belief that he doesn’t think increased safety measures will be a “hindrance to ‘getting that shot’, but rather part of re-instilling the spirituality into the film industry.”
May 12: The Savannah Morning News (AP) – Director of Savannah-Filmed Gregg Allman Movie Grilled in Court Over Fatal Crash
“I did not know it was a live train trestle,” says Rider director Randall Miller. In his first public comments since the tragedy, Miller testifies for more than an hour in a Savannah, Georgia courtroom in conjunction with the lawsuit filed on April 28 by Gregg Allman. Miller insists his assistants were in charge of location permits and safety precautions. He adds, “I was in the middle of the track and I almost died.” Allman’s suit seeks to halt the production, claiming Unclaimed Freight’s option to his biography has lapsed.
May 13: The Hollywood Reporter (AP) – ‘Midnight Rider’: Gregg Allman Agrees to Drop Lawsuit Against Movie Producers
Following the preceding day’s court appearance by Miller and a late night of negotiating, attorneys for Allman and Unclaimed Freight tell Chatham County Superior Court Judge John Morse they’ve reached an out-of-court agreement. A motion for dismissal without prejudice is filed that morning. Details are not discussed, including whether Freight would proceed with plans to resume production in Los Angeles in June, as had been previously announced.
May 21: Variety – ‘Midnight Rider’: Victim’s Family Files Massive Wrongful Death Lawsuit
The family of Sarah Jones files a lawsuit in Chatham County, GA against the Midnight Rider director, producers, Gregg Allman, Unclaimed Freight, distributor Open Road Films, Rayonnier (who own the land through with the tracks pass), the railroad CSX, and several crew-members — including the director of photography, first assistant director, and location manager. In all, eighteen defendants are named, including both individuals and corporate entities. The suit includes charges of negligence, and asks for unspecified damages for Jones’ death and pain and suffering, plus punitive damages.
May 21: Variety – ‘Midnight Rider’: Open Road Asserts It’s been Sued ‘Without Justification’
Open Road Films, distributor for Midnight Rider, claims it should not have been named in the lawsuit filed by the Jones family. A spokesman for the company says, “Open Road Films was not involved in the production in any way at any time and we have been named in this suit without justification.” The statement is issued several hours after the suit is filed.
May 22: Variety – ‘Midnight Rider’ Lawsuit searches for Truth, Attorney Says
Jeffrey Harris, attorney for the Jones family and Sarah Jones’ estate, says the suit is an attempt to “get to the bottom of what happened that day.” Commenting on the possibility of a criminal case, Harris says, “I was willing to wait a reasonable period of time to see if the D.A.’s office was going to make a decision, but you can’t wait forever.”
May 22: WTOC – Attorney Explains Lawsuit Against Allman, Production Companies
Jeffrey Harris further comments on the lawsuit, noting that Gregg Allman was named in the suit because he is an executive producer on the film. Harris also says the suit is “not about bashing the Georgia film industry. It’s about just reminding everybody that there’s no reason someone should die when you make a movie.”
May 22: The New York Times – Parents of Victim in Film Set Safety Accident Plan Safety Campaign
Sarah’s parents, Richard and Elizabeth Jones, report their plans to create a film safety campaign dedicated to Sarah’s memory and built around the phrase “Safety for Sarah.” An element of the campaign will be a course in filmmaking safety to be taught at the high school Sarah attended in Columbia, SC.
May 28: WXIA TV – Benefit Concert for Ga. Filmmaker who Died on Set
The Atlanta-area NBC affiliate reports on a benefit concert to be held in Jones’ memory on May 31 at the Southern Ground Amphitheater in Fayetteville, GA. Atlanta rock group ‘Collective Soul’ is to play. Organized by some of Jones’ fellow industry workers, the event will include a silent auction of donated movie memorabilia, with proceeds going to a scholarship fund established in Jones’ honor.
May 29: The New York Times (AP) – Allman Movie Hairstylist Sues over Ga. Train Crash
Midnight Rider hairstylist Joyce Gilliard brings a lawsuit against the film’s producers, Gregg Allman, Rayonier, and CSX. In previous interviews, Gilliard said she was on the tracks near Jones when the train passed. “The pressure from the train was so strong it pulled me off what I was holding onto and it snapped my arm,” she said during an April 23 conference on workplace safety. Gilliard’s suit claims permanent injuries and post-traumatic stress.
June 7: Variety – ‘Midnight Rider’ Accident Still Evoking Safety Concerns
Speaking on a panel focusing on set safety and the role of insurers, producer Ellen Schwartz urges the 100 attendees to let crews know they can voice safety concerns without fear of retribution. A producer on the upcoming Atlanta-filmed, The Good Lie, Scwhartz also voices dissatisfaction with the city’s crews: “In Atlanta, this is all new to them. They have no passion and they think they know it all.” She adds that incentive-heavy states like Georgia have lower quality crews. “That’s my biggest problem with chasing incentives,” she says.