Hollywood watching as 'Midnight Rider' trial zooms in on film set safety

A trial in camera operator Sarah Jones' death during the filming of 'Midnight Rider' opens Monday in Georgia

A trial focusing on film set safety and criminal liability is scheduled to open Monday in a small town in Georgia, attracting intense interest from Hollywood.

Three executives of an independent film company based in Pasadena face charges of involuntary manslaughter and criminal trespass stemming from the Feb. 20, 2014, death of an assistant camera operator struck by a train during filming on a railroad trestle in rural Georgia.

Sarah Jones, 27, was killed when a train crashed into the crew during a railroad scene for "Midnight Rider," a film about the Southern rocker Gregg Allman. Several other crew members were injured.

UPDATE: 'Midnight Rider' director Randall Miller enters guilty plea

Prosecutors say the defendants — director Randall Miller, his wife and business partner Jody Savin, and executive producer Jay Sedrish — did not have permission to film on the tracks and failed to take safety precautions. They have pleaded not guilty.

The case has highlighted concerns about set safety among "below the line" crew members in the film industry. Jones' death has become a rallying point for Hollywood's production workers, who say it reflects how cost-cutting has put safety at risk.

Film industry workers have lobbied union leaders to step up their efforts to ensure that other states adopt the same safety standards as California has. Workers say such requirements are particularly important on low-budget productions.

A year ago, hundreds marched in a candlelight vigil in Los Angeles to remember Jones. Nearly half a million people signed a Facebook petition demanding that Jones' name be added to the "In Memoriam" tribute on the Academy Awards. The telecast displayed her photo.

A social media campaign called "Slates for Sarah" has lobbied for safer film sets, and Jones' parents have started a foundation to educate crews on safety.

The case is believed to be the first in more than 30 years in which film executives have been criminally charged with manslaughter in connection with a film set death.

In 1982, actor Vic Morrow and two children were killed when a helicopter crashed during late-night filming of "The Twilight Zone" near Santa Clarita. After a 10-month trial, director John Landis and four associates were acquitted on involuntary manslaughter charges in 1987.

In the "Midnight Rider" case, an investigation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration found that the railroad company CSX, which owns the tracks, had denied an email request from the independent company owned by Miller and Savin to film on the trestle, located in Wayne County, Ga.

OSHA said the company, Unclaimed Freight Productions, did not take precautions to protect the crew from the train and had demonstrated "plain indifference to safety and health."

The agency cited the producers for "one willful and one serious safety violation" for exposing employees to hazards. It proposed penalties totaling $74,900.

Lawyers for Miller and Savin have said the couple believed their company had received permission to film on the historic Doctortown Railroad Trestle over the Altamaha River. They said Rayonier Inc., a paper company that owns the land, granted them permission to film on the property.

In a statement issued in October, the lawyers said a representative from the paper company told the couple that only two trains would be using the track that day. After two trains passed, the company set up for filming on the trestle, the statement said.

The statement said Miller, who was on the tracks, "had no reason to believe another train would come down the tracks, or that he shouldn't rely on the information given by Rayonier that no other trains would come that day."

"He would never knowingly or deliberately put anyone on his crew in danger or put himself in danger," the statement said.

The film crew placed a metal-frame bed on the tracks for actor William Hurt, who was portraying Allman. The plan called for Hurt to lie on the bed for a dream sequence.

As a train approached, actors and crew members scrambled to get off the tracks, according to witnesses. They were unable to remove the bed in time.

The train's locomotive smashed into the bed. Jones was struck by metal shards from the bed and by the train itself, according to witnesses and a police report.

A Georgia grand jury indicted the defendants in July.

Unclaimed Freight had encountered previous set safety problems during a 2012 shoot in Georgia, according to the City of Savannah Film Office.

While shooting a scene for "CBGB," a film about the legendary New York nightclub, the film's crew violated permit rules by removing a stop sign from a street without permission and did not replace it, a film office representative said.

The DVD of "CBGB" includes an extra feature in which the filmmakers describe their style of "guerrilla shooting."

The trial, in Jesup, Ga., is expected to last a week or more.

In Georgia, involuntary manslaughter, a felony, carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. Criminal trespass, a misdemeanor, carries a maximum one-year sentence.

david.zucchino@latimes.com

Twitter: @davidzucchino

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