A Chatham County jury awarded the parents of Sarah Jones $11.2 million in damages following a civil trial stemming from a tragic accident leading to her death while filming a movie in Georgia.
The 27-year-old died in February 2014 while shooting the independent biopic called “Midnight Rider” about musician Gregg Allman. Jones was killed and others were injured after a train barreled through a scene they were filming on an historic trestle just outside Savannah. Authorities say the crew did not have permission to film on the trestle.
Richard and Elizabeth Jones sued CSX Transportation, which owns the track, in Chatham County State Court on behalf of their daughter. On Monday, the jury found CSX Transportation liable for the accident and was ordered to pay 35 percent of the award. That comes out to roughly $3.92 million of the total award.
“CSX is deeply sympathetic to the terrible loss suffered by the family of Ms. Sarah Jones, but respectfully disagrees with the conclusions reached by the jury today and will appeal,” a spokesman for the company said in a statement.
Jones’ parents blamed the company for not taking precautions that could have prevented the crash from happening. During the trial, the jury heard testimony that two trains rolled through within an hour before the crash, but the operators did not follow protocol by calling dispatchers to alert them, according to the Washington Post.
The jury also heard that the train did not apply its brakes until it hit a hospital bed placed across the tracks.
At least six crew members were injured by debris from the bed or by the train itself. In one recounting of the incident, hairstylist Joyce Gilliard told the Hollywood Reporter how her arm snapped like a stick after clinging to a girder while the train was passing by.
“I saw my life, my kids, my family, all of it before me,” she said. “I was sure I was going to die.”
CSX insisted that it was not to blame for the crash and that it sent two emails denying permission to film on the trestles. Attorneys for the company also countered that the train did not brake before striking the bed because the engineer was afraid it would derail the train.
Jury Assigned Varying Levels of Liability in Death
Although CSX was found liable for the highest percentage at 35, the jury assigned different levels of liability to other parties as well. Randall Miller, who directed the film, must pay 28 percent of the award or $3.14 million.
In 2015, Miller reached a plea deal that absolved his wife and business partner Jody Savin in the train wreck. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter and criminal trespassing, receiving a sentence of two years in jail and eight years on probation. He also agreed to a $20,000 fine.
Rayonier Performance Fibers, which owns the land of around where the tracks are, was assigned 18 percent of the award or about $2 million. Miller’s wife and assistant director Hillary Schwartz were assigned 7 percent each or about $785,000.
Executive producer Jay Sedrish was found liable for 5 percent or about $561,000. Sedrish had also previously pleaded guilty to charges related to the incident, receiving 10 years of probation.
Jones’ parents issued a statement about her life and the trial Monday.
“Elizabeth and I have spent the last 3 plus years wanting to understand how our daughter, Sarah Elizabeth Jones, tragically lost her life,” the statement said. “That search has now come to a close. Sarah’s life was a bright beacon of hope that was snuffed out too soon.
“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.”
Jones’ Death Raised Concerns About the Movie Industry
Shortly after the news of Jones’ death came out in 2014, it spurred the movie industry to call for more attention on the safety of sets around the world. A campaign called “Slates for Sarah” honored her memory by putting her name on slates of various television and movie projects.
She was also featured in the “In Memoriam” segment at the Academy Awards the year she died.
The issue of danger involving crew members on filming came to light again this month after a stuntman filming on the show “The Walking Dead” died at Atlanta Medical Center due to blunt force trauma. The details surrounding what happened are under investigation.