EXCLUSIVE: It has been a long 4 1/2 years for Elizabeth and Richard Jones since the death of their 27-year-old daughter Sarah Jones on the set of Midnight Rider. The shock of the loss was followed by a criminal investigation, an OSHA investigation, a criminal trial, director Randall Miller’s surprising release from jail after only a year (and the news coming around the holidays), the civil proceedings, the filmmaker’s obstinate nature and public outcry, the death of Gregg Allman, and finally the stress of the past two weeks of the civil trial.
With all of that finally behind them following yesterday’s verdict when they won an $11.2 million judgment against all parties, they talked with Deadline about what their experience has been like since that fateful February day in 2014.
“The judgment wasn’t the most important part — we wanted to know what happened,” Richard Jones said today, when he was asked whether he believed he got the answers they sought. “Yes, I feel at peace. I feel good about what we did and what we accomplished.”
The Jones family is also cognizant of another accomplishment: They have given their daughter a voice, and it has been loud and impassioned.
“She was one person and now she is many people on many different sets,” said Elizabeth Jones. Indeed, the name Sarah Jones looms large in the minds of crews on every TV and film production now. It is now synonymous with set safety.
After the civil trial wrapped yesterday with final arguments, the verdict quickly followed. In Georgia, the law is such that the courts allocate the percentage of liability in civil cases, and railroad company CSX wound up with 35% of the liability, or $3.92M. Can they collect on the rest of it? No, said attorney Jeff Harris.
Harris added he is not sure whether CSX will appeal, but said, “The knee-jerk reaction from a corporation is to appeal. But we hope that they will understand their part in this, that they will learn from this case, make themselves a better company and move on.”
The final result, from the civil trial through depositions and in court, was a fuller story of all the behind-the-scenes machinations that led to Midnight Rider‘s supervising crew trespassing on live train tracks and recklessly putting their crew in peril. CSX argued that although it had denied the production’s request to film at the location, they decided to “steal a shot” anyway.
However, “stealing a shot” is not exactly the right terminology when you have a call sheet for the location and set up a base camp at the site. As location manager Charley Baxter noted during the trial, the supervising crew decided they were going to shoot there whether they had permission or not.
Who knew what when was all pulled out during the Savannah, GA-set trial. “I told Jeff, regardless of what kind of verdict we ended up with, I told him we were very, very pleased with what he did,” Richard Jones said. Added Harris: “There were a series of mistakes that contributed to this … and the jury came up with an allocation of fault that I respect. I was honored to be able to represent this family. It was one of the highlights of my career, and they still like me after trial which is a good sign.”
The death of Sarah Jones and the subsequent actions of the Jones’ family has done more to bring the focus on set safety than anyone has in three decades. Not since the Twilight Zone case from the 1980s when actor Vic Morrow and two children — Myca Dinh Le and Renee Shin-Yi Chen — were killed and six others injured on set has the issue of set safety come so strongly to the fore.
Jones’ death prompted a worldwide social media campaign with big stars like Dustin Hoffman sending out messages of support and the importance of on-set safety. Crews around Hollywood — especially The Vampire Diaries and Army Wives, whose crew had worked with Jones — helped lead the charge with the words “Never Forget. Never Again” and “We Are Sarah Jones.” And there was a poignant moment of industry solidarity at the Oscars when Jones’ name scrolled across the screen and some wore ribbons on the red carpet in her memory. There is now also “The Jonesy,” referred to on sets as the first shot of the day.
The Jones family is continuing to fight for set safety, via the Safety for Sarah Foundation. “It’s what Sarah would have wanted,” Elizabeth said.
“We hear a lot of incidences where this has made a difference and we have used Sarah’s voice to speak up and address set concerns,” Richard said. “Has it made all the difference? Absolutely not. There’s still a lot of work that has to be done.”