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Parents of 'Midnight Rider' Crew Member Killed in Train Accident Wrongful Death Suit

Thursday, May 22, 2014
The parents of Sarah Jones, the 27-year-old camera assistant who was killed in a train accident on the Georgia set of "Midnight Rider" in February, filed a wrongful death lawsuit Wednesday, alleging that the film site was "unreasonably dangerous," accusing rock star Gregg Allman and the producers of the film of overlooking "minimum safety precautions" and shooting the scene without permission.

The suit alleges that the defendants -- producers of the film, Allman, as well as the corporations owning the tracks and the land surrounding them -- realized the danger at the site, but failed "to warn the cast and crew," and "actually concealed that danger by leading the cast and crew to believe that they were on the railroad tracks with permission."

Jones' father, Richard Jones, says he hopes the suit will force the industry to reevaluate itself.

"One word that describes how I feel is frustration, that it would have been so easy to prevent this," Richard Jones told ABC News. "Just simply posting a couple of people down the track to warn them the train's coming. It was so preventable, it's frustrating. There's no movie worth producing that's going to take someone's life."

'Midnight Rider' Train Accident: 60 Seconds to Escape

Jones was one of more than a dozen movie crew and cast members, including Academy award-winning actor William Hurt, who walked onto an active train trestle high above a Georgia river in Feb. 2014. With the crew was a metal framed hospital bed, a prop for filming a dream sequence for "Midnight Rider," a film based on the life of Allman.

Before the crew stepped on the tracks, two trains had already passed. The suit alleges that crew members were told there would be no more trains that day, however, were told by at least one defendant that they would have 60 seconds to get off the tracks and remove "themselves, their equipment, and the hospital bed from the trestle bridge."

The suit states that the crew prepared to film the scene "despite misgivings" about the amount of time to escape.

A third train did approach the narrow century-old trestle, traveling nearly 60 miles per hour. As the train grew closer, the crew scattered, running for their lives and hanging onto the railing. Multiple crew members were injured, but the one person who did not survive was Jones.

"She apparently had gotten just to the side as the train hit the bed, and it was going very fast. It just created shrapnel when it hit that bed, and the shrapnel apparently hit her and knocked her into the train," Richard Jones said.

Jones was killed instantly. Crew members and Jones's family think that Jones may have been slowed out of concern for her equipment. Her body was terribly mangled in the accident.

"I was all but out the door, ready to head to Savannah," her mother, Elizabeth Jones told ABC News, "and the coroner said, 'Ms. Jones, there's nothing you can do here. It will be a closed casket and you should stay there and take care of your family.'"

Based upon crew members' accounts, the Jones family alleges in the suit that the film company lacked everything from spotters along the track and a medic on the set to a basic safety briefing.

"Someone at the scene apparently said, 'Only two trains go by, we're good to go.' The safety briefing in this shoot was, essentially, if a train comes, you got 60 seconds to get off the track," said attorney Jeff Harris, who filed the wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of the Jones family Wednesday.

Crew members have since claimed, as is alleged in the suit, that they had less than 60 seconds to escape.

"All these people very narrowly escaped, and they were all scrambling for their lives, they were all running full bore to try to get to the shore," Harris recounted.

Harris and Sarah's family allege that the company did not have permission to be on the tracks to begin with.

"They said, 'Well, you know we don't have actual permission, but ultimately we're just going to try to steal this shot,'" Harris said. "You don't shoot on a railroad track unless you absolutely are positive that you have permission to be there and you know that the railroad knows you're going to be there, and you know that a train isn't going to come by."

While the suit claims that CSX Transportation, the corporation that owns the tracks, did not grant permission to "Midnight Rider" to film there, CSX is named for allegedly not "taking reasonable safety precautions to avoid the individuals on the train trestle. Namely, the suit alleges that CSX had knowledge that the "Midnight Rider" production would be around the tracks that day, and that in spite of previous trains passing whose operators could have seen the cast and crew, the train that hit Jones was not informed and CSX did not send representatives to clear the tracks.

One of the defendants, Open Road, has said it should not have been sued because it was not involved in the production. Other parties named in Jones' suit have yet to make any public comments.

The pain the Jones family feels is augmented by their belief that her death did not have to happen."It was a live track. There were tracks elsewhere in the vicinity that were not live tracks that could have been used," her mother told ABC News.

After the accident, Hurt withdrew from the film. Still, one union letter released claims that they were informed that the production would resume, this time in Los Angeles.

In late April, Allman sent a private letter to Miller, which was obtained by The Hollywood Reporter, reportedly "asking from a personal perspective not to go forward" with the film "out of respect for Sarah, her family and the loss that all of us feel so deeply."

Allman then filed a lawsuit against Unclaimed Freight, the film's production company, to cease production on the film, alleging that the rights to his life story had lapsed because the company failed to meet the terms of their agreement, and the producers had not paid the full purchase price to Allman as required. After only one day of testimony, attorneys jointly told the judge that they planned to work towards a resolution outside of court. Neither party would disclose the terms of any settlement to ABC News after that court appearance.

The Jones' are adamant that they do not want to take down the industry that their daughter loved, but they believe their suit has the potential to make life-saving changes.

"You can produce a low-budget film and still be safe, you can with proper planning and everything in place," Richard Jones said.

Jones' family hopes the suit will also be a wake-up call to embolden others like their daughter, a young member of the crew, to feel safe and secure in saying "no."

Richard Jones told ABC News he wished he could have given his daughter that coaching.

'Slates for Sarah' Campaign Goes Global

Though they've lost their daughter, the Jones' mission to keep her memory alive has taken on a life of its own. A campaign, Slates For Sarah, has launched worldwide with cast and crew members holding movie slates with her name to raise awareness. The phrase "We are Sarah Jones" has inspired film brethren around the world, both because of the tragedy and because of who Sarah was.

"With sass and spunk, vitality," Elizabeth Jones said, "it was such a love, a passion for her job, it all interconnected."

"You look at all of the pictures of her, she had that smile, just a beautiful smile, and I think that's what does it, people look at that and say what a shame, what a shame," Richard said.

A death Jones' family and those who worked with her believe should not be in vain.

"We want the industry to reevaluate itself. That's the bottom line," Richard Jones said. "Safety. Safety for Sarah."

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