‘Midnight Rider’ producers face wrongful-death lawsuit

Richard Jones, right, sits next to wife Elizabeth as they sit in their attorney's office while talking about their daughter Sarah Jones, the 27-year-old camera assistant killed Feb. 20 by a freight train while filming a movie in southeast Georgia, in Atlanta.
(David Goldman / AP)

The parents of Sarah Jones, the 27-year-old second camera assistant killed during filming of “Midnight Rider,” have filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the Pasadena-based producers of the movie.

Jones was killed and six crew members were injured on Feb. 20 when a freight train crashed into the crew as they were filming the Gregg Allman biopic on a historic train trestle in Doctortown, Ga. Jones was struck by the train and debris from a bed that had been placed on the track for a dream sequence involving actor William Hurt.

In a lawsuit filed in Chatham County State Court in Georgia on Wednesday, Richard and Elizabeth Jones allege that producers Randall Miller (also the film’s director) and his wife, Jody Savin, and other parties negligently caused their daughter’s death.


The suit names their production company Unclaimed Freight Productions, its local production partner Meddin Studios, CSX Transportation, and Open Road Films, the company owned by theater chains Regal and AMC that had planned to distribute the film. Other defendants include Jay Sedrish, the unit production manager; Hillary Schwartz, the first assistant director; and Allman, who served as an executive producer on the film.

The suit, which cites unspecified punitive damages, cites a litany of alleged safety violations that led to Jones’ death. Among them, that the producers did not have permission from CSX to film on the railway itself and misled the crew about that fact. The suit also says producers did not take standard safety precautions, including failing to host a safety meeting prior to filming, not having an on-site medic, not having a railway representative on site.

“By committing these acts, or failures to act, the ‘Midnight Rider’ defendants operated without minimum safety precautions and contrary to standard industry practices for productions of this scale and for productions involving dangerous filming conditions,” according to the suit, prepared by the Atlanta firm of Harris Penn Lowry.

A representative of Rayonier, which owns the land surrounding the bridge, had told the crew that only two trains would pass that day, according to the complaint. Believing the railway was safe, crew members waited for the two trains to pass before placing a metal bed on the tracks to film the dream sequence.

At about 4:30 p.m. a third train “as wide as the trestle bridge” approached the crew at a “rapid speed.” In an effort to esacpe the path of the oncoming train, the crew members had to run in the direction of the oncoming train. Several, including Jones, were unable to get off the bridge in time, according to the lawsuit.

“While the crew had been told they would have 60 seconds to remove themselves, the equipment, and the hospital bed from the trestle bridge, the train approached with a rapid speed and the crew had less than 60 seconds to react,” the lawsuit states.


A spokeswoman for Miller and Savin declined to comment

The accident, which happened on the first day of filming, caused “Midnight Rider” to shut down and has prompted multiple investigations by various federal and state agencies. The District Attorney’s Office in Glynn County, Georgia also is conducting a criminal probe, which is expected to wrap soon, people familiar with the investigation said.

The Jones family lawsuit is the latest legal claim against the producers.

Last month, Allman, a founding member of Allman Brothers Band, sued Unclaimed Freight, alleging the company lost the rights to tell his story after Jones died. Allman, however, dropped his suit last week as part of an out-of-court agreement.

The producers had planned to resume production of the film in Los Angeles in June. But those plans were thrown into question last month when Hurt, who was set to play Allman, pulled out of the film. Hurt had raised questions about the safety of the crew shortly before the accident occurred.

Jones was a native of West Columbia, S.C., who began her film career interning on the set of the TV series “Army Wives,” where she was known as one of the most popular crew members.

Her death galvanized the industry, prompting nationwide calls for safety film sets. Friends and colleagues also mounted an extraordinary social media campaign to have the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences pay tribute to Jones during the Oscar telecast.