No ‘Midnight Rider’ Death Responsibility, Say Open Road, Landowner

Both the distributor of Midnight Rider and the owner of the land where camera assistant Sarah Jones was killed Feb. 20 denied responsibility in court filings this week for her death. The landowner even blames Jones in its filings for not exercising “ordinary care for her own safety.”

Jones’ parents are suing distributor Open Road, landowner Rayonier Performance Fibers and a dozen others for their daughter’s Feb. 20 death when a train blew through a film set on a bridge trestle. The parents’ suit says the distributor was responsible for ensuring a safe and legal shoot, which Open Road answered with an August motion to dismiss. In a new filingthis week in Georgia (read it here), Open Road claims it had no “operational control” over the film shoot.

OpenRoadlogo“None of the rights granted to Open Road under the Distribution Agreement provide Open Road with control over the production. Not one,” reads the filing, which blames the film’s producers. “Rather, the provisions relate to the marketing, publicizing, and distribution of Midnight Rider after it was produced and completed. Contrary to plaintiffs’ assertion, these provisions demonstrate that all operational control of the film was specifically with the producer not the distributor.”

Open Road also submitted a Feb. 22 email sent from Chief Operating Officer and General Counsel Elliott Kleinberg to Wayne County Sheriff’s Det. Joe Gardner, in which Kleinberg distances Open Road from the fatal train accident: “Open Road is a theatrical distribution company that acquires movies from people and companies who make them. We market, release, and distribute those films. We were not involved with the physical production of Midnight Rider or the events surrounding this tragic accident.”

Kleinberg also said media reports incorrectly misrepresented Open Road’s production involvement.

“Contrary to published reports and some statements made by local authorities, there were no Open Road personnel or representatives present on the set of the film, and no Open Road personnel authorized, planned, participated in or paid for the filmmakers’ production activities that led to this tragedy,” he wrote. “Open Road is a different type of business than the traditional Hollywood ‘studio’ that acts as both a physical producer and distributor of movies. We know that some media outlets do not understand this important distinction, but we wanted to make sure it is clear to you and other investigators.”

Landowner Rayonier also filed court papers denying any responsibility on Monday. (Read it here.) The company acknowledged it had granted producers access to the bridge trestle where Jones died, but denied giving filmmakers any knowledge of train schedules on the tracks.

Defendants “Film Allman, Unclaimed Freight, Miller, Savin, Sedrish, Jay Sedrish, Inc., Schwartz, and Ozier planned to film a scene on active railroad tracks despite their knowledge of the danger presented by filming a scene on active railroad tracks,” reads the filing.

The company’s filings also said Jones put herself in danger when she “failed to exercise ordinary care for her own safety and, had she done so, could have avoided the consequences of any alleged negligence on the part of Rayonier.”

Rayonier also sued producer Jay Sedrish in a counterclaim, saying he breached terms of the indemnity agreement he signed on behalf of Film Allman’s legal rep Cohen Gardner, despite not having the authority to do so. Rayonier is seeking unspecified damages and legal fees. Sedrish, director Randall Miller, and producer Jody Savin have pleaded not guilty to charges of criminal trespassing and involuntary manslaughter.

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