Ten months before Sarah Jones was killed in a tragic railroad accident on the Georgia set of Midnight Rider, the AMPTP Industry-Wide Labor-Management Safety Committee issued “Safety Bulletin #28: Guidelines for Railroad Safety” — an eerily prescient warning about the hazard of working on and around railroad trains and tracks. Not a single news outlet even mentioned that it had been issued. As the wrongful death suit filed Wednesday by Jones’ parents proceeds through the legal system, one question that almost certainly will arise is whether the production company, in preparation for setting up its shot that February day on that ill-fated stretch of railroad track, informed crew members of the Safety Committee’s bulletin — or whether they were even aware of its existence. One of the hard lessons that Hollywood should learn from Jones’ death is that there needs to be a wider dissemination and discussion of industry safety guidelines.
The suit alleges that Jones was killed because the production company “operated without minimum safety precautions and contrary to standard industry practices for productions of this scale and for productions involving dangerous filming conditions.” Those safety standards are clearly spelled out in Safety Bulletin #28, and according to the lawsuit, the production company violated a good many of them.
The bulletin states: “Prior to starting rail work, the production, in conjunction with the railroad representative, will conduct a safety meeting with all involved personnel to acquaint cast and crew members with possible workplace risks.” The lawsuit, however, alleges that the production company “failed to hold a safety meeting prior to filming.” The bulletin states: “Always follow the instructions of the designated railroad representative, and any written work or safety rules distributed by production.” The suit claims that the production company “failed to secure approval for filming” from CSX Transportation, which operates the tracks, and “concealed their lack of approval from CSX from the cast and crew.”
CSX was one of 18 defendants named in the lawsuit filed by by Richard and Elizabeth Jones in Georgia’s State Court of Chatham County on behalf of their daughter’s estate, asking for a jury trial. Other defendants include director-producer Randall Miller and producer-wife Jody Savin, along with their Unclaimed Freight production company. Unit production manager Jay Sedrish, 1st A.D. Hillary Schwartz, location manager Charlie Baxter, and exec producer Nick Gant and his Meddin Studios were also named, as was Midnight Rider distributor Open Road Films, exec producer Gregg Allman, and Film Allman, LLC.
Most ominously, the safety bulletin states: “Do not place any objects on the rails, switches, guardrails or other parts of the track structure. If the performance of any of these activities is required for production purposes, specific permission must be obtained from the designated railroad representative and additional safety precautions may be required.” Jones was killed by debris when a fast-moving train struck a hospital bed that had been placed on the tracks, allegedly without permission from the railroad company, to film a dream sequence.
Safety Bulletin #28 can be seen in its entirety here. All of the AMPTP Industry-Wide Labor-Management Safety Committee’s bulletins can be seen here. The Safety Committee, stating that “Every employee has the right to report unsafe conditions or unsafe practices to their employer without fear of reprisal,” also has a Studio Safety Hotline where employees can report unsafe working conditions. It can be viewed here.
The safety bulletin also instructs crew members to consider their own safety when filming on or near railroad tracks. “Remain alert and aware of your surroundings at all times,” it warns. “Locomotives, railroad cars and other equipment may move without warning on any track in either direction. Never assume a train will be traveling in a particular or ‘normal’ direction on any track.” The suit alleges that the production company “failed to station ‘look-out’ individuals to watch for an approaching train,” but the safety bulletin cautions: “DO NOT RELY ON OTHERS TO WARN YOU of approaching locomotives, rail cars or other equipment. Even if personnel have been assigned to provide warning, stay alert. You may not hear or see the warning. When whistle or flag signals are to be used to communicate, everyone must be familiar with their meaning. The railroad representative or 1st AD shall educate cast and crew as to the meaning of these signals prior to commencement of work.”
“Listen for the sound of approaching locomotives or rail cars, as well as audible signals, such as bells or whistles,” the safety bulletin states. “Trains typically use such signaling devices before moving, but do not assume that such warnings will be sounded. Be aware that the train is significantly wider than the track’s width. Fifteen feet from either side of the tracks is considered a safe distance. Closer distances need to be approved by the designated railroad representative.”
Calls to the AMPTP Industry-Wide Labor-Management Safety Committee were not returned.