Sarah Jones Family V. CSX Verdict: Jones Win $11.2M In Savannah Court; Family Releases Statement

By Anita Busch, Patty Leon, Special To Deadline

BREAKING, 2:22 PM (updated at 4:20 PM with Jones family statement): The parents of 27 year-old Sarah Jones just won an $11.2M judgment in the civil suit against CSX, laying legal liability at the feet of the railroad company, Film Allman and others for death of their daughter. The decision came about 20-to 30-minutes after jurors asked the judge about allocating of percentages among those who the Jones’ family sued for culpability. The Jones had sued Film Allman, Rayonier and CSX. Specifically, jurors ruled that Jones should be given just under $2M for pain and suffering and $9.2M for economic losses. Check out the court documents below.

Of that, CSX is liable for 35% or roughly $3.92M; Midnight Rider Randall Miller for 28%, Rayonier (who owned the lands around the tracks and allowed the filmmakers on) and producer Jody Savin at 7%, first AD Hillary Schwartz. Jay Sedrish with 5% each.

Richard and Elizabeth Jones (Sarah’s parents) just released this statement PM:

“Elizabeth and I have spent the last 3 plus years wanting to understand how our daughter, Sarah Elizabeth Jones, tragically lost her life. That search has now come to a close.

Sarah’s life was a bright beacon of hope that was snuffed out too soon.

Elizabeth and I want to thank our attorney, Jeff Harris, his partners and exceptional staff, who worked so hard for Sarah. We also would like to thank our Columbia attorney Jake Moore for his guidance.

We felt that this trial was necessary in order to learn what happened that tragic day of February 20, 2014. It is only with the discovery of what could have been done differently that we might avoid another similar tragic loss of life.

We have learned much from this trial. No doubt that the decisions made by those in charge of Film Allman, LLC were foolish, criminal and, in our view, selfish. That said, this trial disclosed a number of exceptionally poor judgements and ignored opportunities by CSX Transportation to prevent this tragedy. Frankly, I believe that the evidence in this trial indicated that CSX has systemic issues that need corrected.

We miss you Sarah.”

The jurors said Sarah Jones had zero liability, despite CSX trying to blame the victims in their defense strategy and that Nick Gant’s Meddin Studios also had no legal liability. Jurors found that location manager Charley Baxter also had zero liability.

After the verdict was read, the defense team shook hands with Jones’ lawyer and they all left the courtroom. No one wanted to speak afterwards, saying they were exhausted. The Joneses have said all along that they were suing to find out the truth of what happened and make sure this would never happen again to another family. They have been advocating for set safety to become the highest priority in Hollywood.

Unfortunately, this comes only days after 33 year-old stuntman John Bernecker was killed on the set of The Walking Dead. He died in an Atlanta, GA hospital after a fall during a fight scene rehearsal at Raleigh Studios in Senoia, GA.

Steven Poster ASC, National President, on behalf of the International Cinematographers Guild, ICG Local 600, said in a statement: “The court decision finding CSX Transportation and others liable for Sarah’s senseless death confirms the right of all people to a safe workplace, be it a studio, on-location or a factory floor. Also charged with fault are the film’s director, who previously pleaded guilty and has served one year in jail, the producer, first AD, and the UPM.”

“We cherish Sarah’s memory and applaud the steadfast commitment of Sarah’s parents, Elizabeth and Richard, to bring justice to bear and remind us all of the need for constant vigilance to protect employees and ensure they are working on safe sets at all times,” Poster said. “The ICG continues to support the mission of the Safety For Sarah Foundation as we embrace its message: “Never Forget – Never Again.”

EXCLUSIVE, Monday 11:32 AM: The civil trial against railroad company CSX brought by the family of Sarah Jones is now in the hands of the jury, following closing arguments this morning. At issue is whether CSX was legally liable in the death of the 27 year-old camera assistant by not following their own company policy and a failure to report that there were people aligning the tracks. Also at issues is why the train did not apply its brakes until five seconds after the impact on the bridge. Jones was killed and six others injured during the filming of Midnight Rider on Feb. 20, 2014.

In closing arguments, Jones’ attorney told the jury that CSX was trying to blame the entire thing on director Randall Miller who pleaded guilty and served a year in jail for criminal trespassing and involuntary manslaughter, but that CSX is trying to shrug all responsibility from itself.

Two trains passed through the train trestle the first day of filming Midnight Rider before the third train plowed through the set going 57 mph. The CSX attorney countered saying that the other two train conductors said nothing appeared out of ordinary and they had seen people on the side of tracks before. In court, they had referred to them as “rail fans.”

They also said that it wasn’t the train that killed Sarah Jones, rather she was killed by shrapnel from the metal hospital bed prop that Miller and his crew set up on the tracks illegally.

The CSX attorney also said that the emergency brake wasn’t applied because the conductor and engineer were afraid of a derailment. The lawyer said they couldn’t see anything clearly from 2,000 feet away, and, by the time they saw the crew on the tracks and trestle, it wouldn’t have helped to apply the brakes.

Harris countered that their own conductor of the third train had disputed their position in a deposition, by acknowledging that they knew something was on the tracks. He also said that Film Allman was not following safety rules. He said, “if Miller’s film company is expected to follow safety rules, doesn’t CSX need to follows its (company’s) own rules?”

Last week in court, Jones’ lawyers introduced the CSX’s company 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.

Sarah Elizabeth Jones began her film career as an intern on Lifetime’s Army Wives. Her credits include The CW’s The Vampire Diaries. She was 27.

By the defense’s own admission, Harris said in his closing argument today, CSX said it was Miller who put the crew in harm’s way (and the plaintiffs agree with that), but he reminded jurors not to blame the victims as they were unaware that their supervising crew were trespassing and putting their lives in danger.

The plaintiffs closing argument ended by playing video montage of Sarah Jones, which included a snippet of Richard Jones and his daughter having fun and laughing together. In the courtroom, Mr. Jones visibly slumped and began crying as his wife Elizabeth Jones tried to comfort him.

Judge Gregory Sapp then gave jurors their instructions and they retired to the jury room. If they find against CSX, the judge told them that they had to figure out how much in punitive damages should be award to the family of Sarah Jones. Economic damages between $5M and $15M for the remainder of Sarah Jones’ life would have to be considered if the jurors ruled against CSX, he said. That was not disputed by CSX. That monetary judgment would then be on top of another value from the pain and suffering from the loss of Jones’ life and its impact on her family. Stay tuned.

Richard and Elizabeth Jones
Richard and Elizabeth Jones

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