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OSHA documents show details of safety violations in Sarah Jones case

Criminal trial in Midnight Rider case set for March, 2015

With one civil lawsuit settled and a criminal trial scheduled for next March, recently released documents from an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) investigation provide new details about the tragic death of 27-year-old camera operator Sarah Jones. Jones, a member of IATSE Local 600, died on a train track in rural Georgia while filming a scene for Midnight Rider, a feature film about Gregg Allman.

In August, OSHA cited Film Allman, LLC, producers of Midnight Rider, for serious and willful safety violations, levying a fine of $74,900. Deadline.com, an online publication covering the film industry, filed a freedom of information request to obtain the investigative report used by OSHA to determine safety violations and assess penalties.

Four executives from the film have been indicted for criminal trespass and manslaughter: Director Randall Miller, producer Jody Savin, unit production manager Jay Sedrish and first assistant director Hillary Schwartz. Their trial is set to begin on March 9th in Wayne County Superior Court in Jesup, Georgia. If convicted of manslaughter, the defendants could face up to ten years in prison.

As described in Preventable Deaths 2014, our Workers Memorial Week report, Sarah Jones was was struck and killed by a freight train hurtling down the tracks at a speed of 57 miles per hour. The OSHA report obtained by Deadline.com, although heavily redacted, shows that railway operator CSX had denied Film Allman permission to use the tracks.

 
An ABC 20/20 report shows the railway company email denying access to its train trestle.

Film producers also failed to properly scout the location due to financial concerns. “The company was able to save money,” says the report, “by stealing the shot.”

Without permission or safety precautions, Randall Miller went ahead with an unscheduled shoot. Miller himself, the report states, “motioned for [crew members] to come onto the trestle to set up for a shoot.”

How long did Miller think they’d have to get out of the way if a train came? “I heard that if a train were to come, that at the very least we’d have 60 seconds,” said Miller, in a sworn deposition. Under cross-examination, he said he considered one minute adequate time to get the set, equipment, and personnel off the train trestle.

On October 31, ABC’s 20/20 news program aired a segment about Sarah Jones’ death. It includes an interview with former Atlanta Film Commission head Jay Self, who described Miller’s attitude while making an earlier film – CBGB – in Georgia. “He would say, ‘We’re trying to make a movie here,’” Self recalled, “as if that outweighed the needs or the safety or the welfare of other people. When CBGB was over, we were, like, ‘I can’t believe nobody got hurt.’”

Deadline.com reporter Anita Busch, interviewed by 20/20, recalled another Hollywood tragedy: the helicopter crash that took the lives of one adult and two children during the 1982 filming of The Twilight Zone. “The one thing the Twilight Zone incident did do is it’s helped safety issues for children, and for child labor laws. I think we are seeing the same thing for safety on the set with Midnight Rider and Sarah Jones. People will not forget Sarah Jones.”

Sarah’s union, IATSE Local 600, has honored her life and work by calling for increased attention to safety on film sets. Sarah’s parents, Richard and Elizabeth Jones, have also become strong advocates for on-the-job-safety. On November 19th, they announced the settlement of a civil lawsuit against the producer of Midnight Rider. Terms of the settlement were not disclosed.

The goal of the legal action, said family attorney Jeff Harris, was “to find out what happened on the day of their daughter’s death, determine who was responsible, hold those who made bad decisions accountable and ensure this kind of tragedy never happens again on another film set. Today, we are another step closer to fully achieving those objectives.”

 
Camerawoman Sarah Jones at work.

Related link: Executive Director Mary Vogel discusses the Sarah Jones tragedy on Newsmakers with Tim Bryant, WGAU 1340 AM (August 19, 2014).

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