Three and a half years after losing their daughter in a horrific accident on a Georgia movie set, Richard and Elizabeth Jones feel a measure of closure.
“At peace,” Richard Jones said during an interview with the AJC on Tuesday.
On Monday, a Savannah jury returned an $11.2 million judgment following the wrongful death suit the Joneses brought against CSX Transportation and a number of other defendants in the months following Sarah Jones’ February 2014 death.
“It was not easy, but necessary. One of the key reasons we did this was to understand more what happened that day,” Jones said. “In general it just opened up what happened and clarified a lot of things.”
Sarah was 27 and working as a second camera assistant on “Midnight Rider,” which was to have been a movie about Southern rocker Gregg Allman. The production did not have permission to film on a train trestle outside Jesup but did so anyway. Sarah died when a train came hurtling down the track where the film crew was setting up for a scene.
Although CSX had not sanctioned the filming, Jones said, “They could have been so much more clear with their communication with Film Allman management. I really do believe Film Allman and (director) Randall Miller and those involved – they knew what they were doing. I think think they understood that CSX meant no. They left the door open just enough to give Film Allman an excuse to jump through it. They could have done better.”
The jury assigned varying levels of liability: CSX is liable for 35 percent or roughly $3.92 million; Miller for 28 percent or $3.14 million, Rayonier (the corporation that owns the land where the tracks are located), 18 percent or about 2 million, Savin and first AD Hillary Schwartz 7 percent or about $785,000 and producer Jay Sedrish 5 percent or about $561,000.
The Jones’ attorney, Jeff Harris of Harris Lowry Manton, said Sarah’s sweet spirit resonated with the jury, who had to experience the harrowing video of the crash.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had a client as amazing as Sarah Jones,” Harris said. “She was a special person.”
“You have these film companies shooting movies or TV shows. They take these productions and they move them all over the place,” Harris said. “You have these people working all kinds of hours. Some of them are young, some of them are new to the industry. A movie set is like a big factory, except in a factory you have the same people doing the same jobs. A movie set is like taking a big factory that has things going on that are dangerous and moving it around and then doing things that might be dangerous, like blowing stuff up.”
Given Georgia’s booming film industry, he added, “I’m surprised there aren’t more accidents.”
For that reason, the Joneses, who live in Columbia, S.C., intend to continue pressing for safer standards and stricter enforcement. Richard Jones sold his business to focus on the foundation they started in their daughter’ memory.
“If they’re going to change the culture of the industry we need to start with the young minds,” he said.
Elizabeth Jones sounded pleased to have reached a conclusion in the legal process, yet weary at the loss they’ll never recover from.
“We both are happy to have reached a point where we have more understanding of what did happen. That’s a great relief,” she said. “There will always be unanswered questions.”