UPDATED WITH ABC NEWS STATEMENT: Two weeks after shocking footage from the train that killed Midnight Rider camera assistant Sarah Jones was revealed on the Oct. 31 episode of ABC’s 20/20, railroad company CSX is hitting back against the Jones family lawyers. In a motion filed this week in the ongoing wrongful death case against CSX and over a dozen other defendants (read it here), CSX accused Jones’ lawyers of slipping the train footage to ABC News and asked a Georgia court to block any further evidence from going public pre-trial.
The 20/20 episode aired footage from a camera on the train that was heading from Savannah to Manchester, Georgia on the afternoon of February 20. The segment revealed that the locomotive needed a mile to stop, and began sounding its whistle 26 seconds before impact. Stars William Hurt and Wyatt Russell can be seen attempting to get to safety along with other crew members at the near end of the Doctortown train trestle, including director Randall Miller. Jones, 27, was pulled towards the train as it passed and was killed and several others were injured.
The company claims that after the Jones lawyers received the CSX-owned train footage from a discovery request, they violated terms of their licensing agreement. The Jones camp was required to first prove they had purchased a license from General Electric, who owns the proprietary software needed to view the CSX train footage. That license carries its own terms prohibiting altering or disseminating its data. CSX then released the footage to the Jones lawyer with a watermark reading, “This video contains confidential information belonging to CSX. Any unauthorized copying, distribution, manipulation or other use is strictly prohibited.”
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CSX says the same footage appeared nine days later on the 20/20 broadcast after being “heavily manipulated.”
“While CSXT cannot be certain of how the video was manipulated, or by whom, it appears that the video was initially recorded off a computer that was running the GE software, and that the recorded version was then manipulated in multiple ways,” read the filing. “For example, during the broadcast the video was played in fast forward and in slow motion, the color and lighting of the video had been altered, and graphics had been embedded within the video. The CSX proprietary watermark is plainly visible during the segment.”
“We did not alter the content of what took place in the video, which is public record. The bad quality video which we obtained was sharpened to make it clearer,” said ABC News in a statement. “We ran it twice in our report and a third time with graphics and in slow motion to give the viewer a better understanding of what happened.”
CSX is asking the court to prevent similar evidence from getting out as the case continues. Any further release of video or photo evidence could taint the jury pool and violate CSX’s right to a fair trial, the company argued, but “no harm will come to Plaintiffs if they are made to simply stop giving proprietary evidence adduced in discovery to the media.”
The railroad company went one step further, asking Judge Gregory Sapp to muzzle Jones family lawyer Jeffrey Harris. They want him prohibited from making any statements out of court following what they call his “highly prejudicial and inaccurate comments about CSXT” in the press “that could only have been intended to influence the jury.”
“CSXT does not seek to limit anyone’s speech lightly, but if Plaintiffs’ counsel is not constrained from further comment, there is a substantial likelihood that CSXT’s fundamental right to a fair trial will be materially prejudiced,” they said.
The legal skirmish between CSX and the Jones reps flared up in September after CSX said in court filings that Jones had “voluntarily exposed herself to risks” and failed to protect her own safety in the events leading up to the tragedy.
“CSX’s attempt to blame Sarah for causing her own death is, unfortunately, not surprising given the Defendants’ behavior to date,” read a statement issued by Harris, who added, “It would also be reasonable to trust that CSX would follow its own safety measures by notifying its train operators that a film crew was setting up next to their tracks.”
CSX is just one of several defendants named in the May 21 wrongful death case brought by Jones’ parents Richard and Elizabeth Jones. Also named in the civil suit are director Miller, producer Jody Savin, unit production manager and executive producer Jay Sedrish, and 1st assistant director Hillary Schwartz, who are also facing criminal charges of involuntary manslaughter and criminal trespass.
Deadline’s Dominic Patten contributed to this report.
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