Richard and Elizabeth Jones took the stand today in the third day of their civil trial against railroad company CSX, which they have sued for negligence for the 2014 death of their daughter Sarah Jones. Jones, a 27 year-old camera assistant, who was killed on the set of the Greg Allman biopic Midnight Rider.
Richard Jones acknowledged on the stand today that Midnight Rider director Randall Miller and the supervising crew did trespass to set up a scene on a Georgia train trestle, but noted: “That being said, I would also state that if CSX had reacted, given the information they had, that chances are Sarah would also be alive.” He also stated that when asked how many children he had, he didn’t know how to answer the question, should it be three … or two.
He said when he heard that his daughter was dead, “I … I tried to speak … nothing came out and I fell … I just fell on my knees … I only … I only got out … what … what?”
The trial began Tuesday with jurors watching a video of the Midnight Rider film crew running for their lives as a freight train bore down (not braking at all) just moments before Jones was killed and several others were injured on the Doctortown bridge in Wayne County, GA. One of those running off the train trestle was actor William Hurt, who was to play Allman in the film. He has been in court the past three days but has not taken the stand; it’s not clear whether he will or not.
The plaintiffs (Jones) attorneys rested their case today and immediately the defense began presenting its witnesses.
So far over the past three days, several CSX workers have testified as have others who were on the Midnight Rider film crew including Karen Keyes. According to an Associated Press report, she said that the working crew thought they had been cleared that day to shoot on the bridge. The production, of course, did not have permission, and the crew was lied to by the supervising crew members. Director Miller pleaded guilty and ended up in jail over the incident, while two others — Jay Sedrish and first A.D. Hillary Schwartz — received probation.
Said Keyes of that day: “The wind was fierce… the horn… was… near deafening. And… the power of that train — the most terrifying position I had been in my entire life. And I just remember hoping that it would stop.”
One of the most argued-over points in the trial has been one of the railroad’s own documents that Jones’ lawyers presented stating that anyone trespassing on the tracks should be considered a railroad emergency, and protocol after that is to contact dispatch. That had not been done, Jones’ lawyers noted.
Although CSX personnel saw what they thought were kids around the tracks, it was not reported as trespassing. Jones’ lawyers said that because it failed to be reported, CSX did not show the kind of care it should have.
An expert from another railroad said the brakes for the train that ran through the set were applied five seconds after impact, but the conductor should have braked beforehand. It was said that the train was travelling at 57 miles per hour when it crashed through the set that included a hospital bed prop placed perpendicular across the tracks.
A CSX lawyer told the jury in opening arguments that the engineer was afraid that applying his brakes would have possibly thrown his payload onto the crew. And, he said, there was no indication that those on the tracks were trespassing.
Jones’ lawyers introduced CSX’s employee policy that stated that conductors must “immediately notify a dispatcher of any unauthorized outside party on a track or right of way … Be especially cautious around bridges and tunnels.”
However, CSX countered saying that none of that proves negligence, and then pointed the finger back to Miller. They said CSX twice in writing denied the filmmakers access.
After reviewing company policy with CSX Assistant Terminal Superintendent James Murray, and showing him a photo of the movie crew members standing on either side of the train tracks before the crash, Jones’ attorney asked, “Are these people trespassing?”
“Knowing what we know now, yes,” Murray answered. An engineer testified that they initially thought the people around the tracks were taking pictures and that there was nothing to indicate there was any immediate danger. He said they could have been “rail fans,” referring to photographers who take pics of trains.
The train’s engineer and conductor said this afternoon that when the train was approaching the tracks, they weren’t sure what was happening. One said he thought “buzzards” were on the track and then thought maybe it was a truck. They would later find out after the incident that it was the hospital bed prop.
Photographer and videographer Izabeau Giannakopoulos said yesterday she personally had no idea the production was trespassing until someone started screaming to get off the tracks. “You’re asking if I feel deceived by my superiors? Yes, I do,” she said. She became emotional, according to local Savannah, GA news station WSAV. So did another victim witness, Zach Graber.
After the train plowed through the set, one of the crew members told Graber, who had been on the trestle with Jones, that Jones was dead. Fighting back tears, Graber said from the witness stand that he asked the crew member, “Are you sure? Let’s go get her. And (a fellow crew member) said, ‘No, she’s gone.’ ”
There was also testimony about the kind of decent person Jones was from one of her childhood friends. In addition to her death, six other film workers were injured that day, February 20, 2014. The Jones family has stated that they don’t want this to happen to anyone else, and that is the reason they are suing.
The trial is expected to last another week at the the Chatham County Courthouse in Savannah. CSX lawyers have asked twice for a mistrial during the proceedings. Both requests were denied.