Steve Lowry and Yvonne Godfrey, hosts of the Great Trials Podcast, recently interviewed trial attorneys Jeff Harris and Rebecca Franklin Harris about their strategy in the landmark wrongful death case involving a deadly train crash that killed camera assistant Sarah Jones and injured other members of a film crew while filming the “Midnight Rider” movie near Jesup, Ga. in 2014. The movie, which was never completed, was based on the life of Southern rock icon Greg Allman of The Allman Brothers.
Jeff Harris is a partner at Harris Lowry Manton LLP and a nationally acclaimed trial attorney. Rebecca Franklin Harris is the founder of Franklin Law, LLC and serves as “Of Counsel” for Harris Lowry Manton LLP.
At the start of this laid-back interview, the hosts disclosed that three of them – Jeff Harris, Rebecca Franklin Harris and host Yvonne Godfrey – worked on the trial together. The podcast interview gave a behind-the-scenes perspective of what it was like to try such a complex, high-profile case.
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The film industry in Georgia
Steve Lowry began by saying that he and Yvonne Godfrey wanted to discuss this case on the show because it presented so many unusual issues related to the film industry in Georgia, and all of the complexities that go with it, including who was responsible for the cascade of events that transpired, and who was ultimately liable for the death of Sarah Jones.
The interview begins with a recap of the story of what happened on the railroad trestle where Sarah Jones was struck and killed by a CSX train. Unbeknownst to camera assistant Sarah Jones and the rest of the crew, they were filming on active railroad tracks owned by CSX Transportation. Sarah was struck and killed by a train and quickly became the face of Hollywood’s film safety movement.
Jeff Harris described some of the issues involved in a trial involving the film industry. The attorneys discovered that film making is hierarchical, and follows a military-style model with people at the top of the food chain, and on various levels below them. The investigation found that there were several people who made significant errors that led to the death of Sarah Jones: the film’s director Randall Miller, who ended up going to jail; the location manager Charlie Baxter; and the first assistant director (AD) Hillary Schwartz.
The bottom line is that the film crew wanted to film a scene on the train trestle, but were unable to get permission from CSX to film on that particular location. The director and the first AD decided that they were going to “steal the shot,” which meant taking the crew out on the trestle to film, whether they had permission or not. Jeff Harris said that the director, the first AD and the location manager all knew that they did not have permission to be on the trestle filming that day – but no one else did. Sarah Jones and the rest of the crew weren’t told they were “stealing the shot.”
The case against the movie company settled because it was straightforward. There was a mistake on the part of the management in that they did not tell the workers that they did not have permission to film there.
The case against CSX
What was left was the case against CSX. The story received significant coverage in the press, and it was reported that the film crew was “repeatedly denied permission” to be filming on the trestle. Thus, some people were upset because the railroad was found liable based on this “fact.” However, that was not the evidence actually presented at trial.
Instead, the facts were as follows:
- There were several attempts to get permission from CSX for filming, and for weeks prior to the shoot CSX representatives showed interest in the project, leading the producers to believe that they would ultimately be granted permission to film on the track.
- CSX waited until the morning of the shoot, when the crew was already on their way out to the site, to send an email that said, “We cannot support you in this endeavor.”
- Importantly, CSX never formally said “no” to filming on the trestle.
Even more important, CSX violated its own policy regarding engineers reporting people on the train tracks. During trial, the attorneys brought up the fact that CSX has a policy in place for scenarios like this: if conductors observe people on the tracks, they have a duty to report it.
Three trains went down the track that day while the crew was filming. The third train was the one that struck and killed Sarah Jones and injured other crew members. Neither of the first two trains warned the trains coming behind them that there were people on the trestle. The train that hit Sarah was going the fastest of all three, and it never applied its brakes until after it hit her.
Jeff Harris spoke about the live video they had of the incident, capturing key moments throughout the day from several angles because a movie was being made. The trains also have video cameras that capture what the conductor sees. The attorneys also spoke about one juror whose prejudicial views almost hung the jury, and which brought the verdict down because of a personal experience in her past.
One positive outcome of the Jones v. CSX case was the attention it drew to increasing safety on movie sets. Sarah Jones’ family created a website, Safety for Sarah, with the mission to make safety a priority on movie sets, and the Sarah Jones Film Foundation.
The Great Trials Podcast interview offers a fascinating look at what goes into trying a complicated case like this one, and gives the listener access to what went on behind the headlines of this high-profile trial.
To learn more about Harry Lowry Manton LLP and how we can help when you have been hurt, or to speak with a Georgia wrongful death lawyer, please contact us, or call our offices: 404.998.8847 in Atlanta, and 912.417.3774 in Savannah today.