Jury awards $11.2 million following Georgia movie-set fatality

A Chatham County jury on Monday awarded more than $11.2 million in a civil suit stemming from a deadly accident on a Georgia film set.

“Midnight Rider” crew member Sarah Jones, 27, died in February 2014 when a train came hurtling down the track where the film crew was setting up for a scene. The production did not have permission to film on the train trestle, outside Jesup.

Director Randall Miller reached a plea deal that avoided a trial and absolved his wife and business partner, Jody Savin, of criminal prosecution. In pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter and criminal trespassing, Miller received a sentence of two years in jail and eight on probation, in addition to a $20,000 fine. He was released early, in March 2016.

Richard and Elizabeth Jones filed the civil suit a few months after their daughter’s death against numerous plaintiffs. Southern rocker Gregg Allman, whose life story was to have been told in “Midnight Rider,” and who served as an executive producer on the project, was dropped from the lawsuit. He died in May at age 69.

The jury decided on the allocation of liability: CSX for 35 percent or roughly $3.9 million, Miller for 28 percent or $3.14 million, Rayonier (the corporation that owns the land where the tracks are located) for 18 percent or about 2 million, Savin and first assistant director Hillary Schwartz for 7 percent or about $785,000 and producer Jay Sedrish for 5 percent or about $561,oo0.

Sarah Jones’ father Richard Jones, issued a statement via legal counsel Monday evening: “Elizabeth and I have spent the last three-plus years wanting to understand how our daughter, Sarah Elizabeth Jones, tragically lost her life. That search has now come to a close. Sarah’s life was a bright beacon of hope that was snuffed out too soon. Elizabeth and I want to thank our attorney, Jeff Harris, his partners and exceptional staff, who worked so hard for Sarah. We also would like to thank our Columbia attorney, Jake Moore, for his guidance.

“We felt that this trial was necessary in order to learn what happened that tragic day of Feb. 20, 2014,” the statement continued. “It is only with the discovery of what could have been done differently that we might avoid another similar tragic loss of life. We have learned much from this trial. No doubt that the decisions made by those in charge of Film Allman, LLC were foolish, criminal and, in our view, selfish. That said, this trial disclosed a number of exceptionally poor judgments and ignored opportunities by CSX Transportation to prevent this tragedy. Frankly, I believe that the evidence in this trial indicated that CSX has systemic issues that need corrected.”

In conclusion he said, “We miss you Sarah.”

The verdict came days after another fatal injury on a Georgia film set. John Bernecker, a stuntman who had been working on “The Walking Dead” set in Coweta County, was seriously injured when he fell more than 20 feet and missed a safety cushion. Coweta County Coroner Richard Hawk told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Bernecker was flown by medical helicopter to the Atlanta Medical Center, where he was pronounced brain dead at 6:30 p.m. July 12. On July 14, a statement issued on behalf of his family by LifeLink Foundation said his organs had been donated.

“Although devastated by their loss, John’s loved ones have ensured his legacy will live on, not only through the personal and professional contributions he made during his life, but also by their generous decision to allow John to save lives as an organ donor,” the statement read. “John will touch countless others as the family members, friends and communities of those who receive his organs will be forever impacted by the memories and milestones made possible thanks to a second chance at life. The family requests privacy during this time as they say goodbye to John.”