CSX’s petition for a new trial in the case of Midnight Rider and the death of Sarah Jones has been denied by Chatham County State Court Judge Gregory V. Sapp. CSX had filed a motion for a new trial after losing a civil case this past summer to the parents of 27-year-old crew member Sarah Jones, killed on a GA train trestle in 2014 while filming the Greg Allman biopic Midnight Rider.
“The Court disagrees with CSX’s argument that there was no evidence CSX violated the applicable standard of care,” Judge Sapp wrote in his order. “To the extent the jury found that CSX engaged in willful or wanton conduct, there is some evidence to support this finding … and there was some evidence for the jury to find that CSX employees were negligent in failing to report the trespassers or take additional precautions to avoid injuring them.”
Evidence presented in court showed that two train crews observed the film crew near the tracks before the third train plowed through the “set” put in place by Midnight Rider filmmaker Randall Miller on a live track to his unsuspecting crew. Three members of the managing crew — Miller, first AD Hillary Schwartz and UPM Jay Sedrish — were charged with criminal trespass and felony involuntary manslaughter for their role in their young crew member’s death and the injury to several other crew members. Miller spent time in jail and the other two got probation.
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The Court also rejected CSX’s argument that Sarah Jones was only in fear of dying from the moment the bed fell to the moment she was killed and so her conscious pain and suffering should be considered during a more limited time frame and should be reduced.
“Having heard the testimony of the film crew and having seen the videos of the crew running to escape the oncoming train, the Court finds there is sufficient evidence for the jury to find that Ms. Jones’ fear of imminent death and conscious pain and suffering commenced at some point while the film crew and Ms. Jones attempted to evacuate the tracks and prior to the bed falling. Given this evidence … the Court finds that CSX has not met its burden of proof and denies the motion for new trial on this basis.”
The Judge also denied motions about witnesses’ testimony either being excluded or called to testify.
Read the full order, entered on April 20, here.
“Justice for Sarah Jones was served when a Chatham County jury announced its verdict back in July of 2017,” said Harris Lowry Manton LLP partner Jeffrey R. Harris, the lead trial attorney for the plaintiff. “We support the judge’s conclusion that there was no legal basis to proceed with a new trial.”
In July of last year, a jury returned an $11.2M verdict agreeing with the Jones family that their daughter’s death was the direct result of the negligence of multiple parties, including CSX Transportation. Specifically, the jurors found that Sarah Jones had zero liability in her own death, despite CSX trying to blame the victims in their defense strategy. The Joneses had sued Film Allman, Rayonier (which owned the land around the train trestle) and CSX.
In July, jurors ruled that Jones should be given just under $2M for pain and suffering and $9.2M for economic losses. Of that, CSX was to be liable liable for 35% or roughly $3.92M, Miller for 28%, Rayonier (who owns the lands around the tracks), producer Jody Savin at 7%, Schwartz and Sedrish with 5% each.
To that point, Sapp wrote: “Given this perspective, the amount of fault apportioned to CSX is not so shocking or unsupported and it is not against the weight of the evidence. The Court thus declines to award a new trial.”
This comes only a month after Judge Anthony Harrison denied Miller’s motion asking for supervision to be lifted from his sentence. Miller pleaded guilty on March 9, 2016 and was to serve out his sentence in the Wayne County, GA jail for two years with eight years of supervised probation. He was given early release and then once he arrived in California, his attorneys went back into a GA court and asked for leniency.
The death of Jones along with the Miller, Sedrish and Schwartz’s criminal and civil cases brought national attention to safety issues in the film industry and the Safety for Sarah campaign was born.
Jones’ death and the ensuing cases against director Miller and CSX also galvanized film crew members throughout the entertainment industry and highlighted longstanding concerns about set safety which continues in earnest to this day.
One of those injured that day on the set was hairstylist artist Joyce Gilliard whose arm was almost torn off as she narrowly escaped death on the train track. Gilliard has now committed herself to safety issues and launched the organization iSAFE! TV and Film to together to find a resolution to end the fear and provide protection for all movie crew members.
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