Midnight Rider director Randall Miller and producers Jody Savin and Jay Sedrish have been charged with involuntary manslaughter and criminal trespass in Wayne County, Georgia superior court following the death of camera assistant Sarah Jones, it was announced on Thursday.
Jones was struck and killed by a train last February on the Wayne County, Georgia set of the Gregg Allman biopic. Following that, the Wayne County sheriff’s office and the NTSB were among the agencies investigating the incident. The sheriff’s office turned its findings over to the district attorney’s office in late April, with the former letting the DA decide whether to file charges in the matter. Wayne County detective Joe Gardner presented the case to the grand jury on Wednesday.
Involuntary manslaughter carries a potential sentence of 10 years in prison under Georgia law, according to Thursday’s announcement from district attorney Jackie Johnson. Criminal trespass is a misdemeanor and carries a potential sentence of 12 months. Miller and Savin own the production company behind the film, Unclaimed Freight. Sedrish was the film’s executive producer.
These are the first criminal charges filed regarding Jones’ death, which has served as a wake-up call for the entertainment industry about on-set safety issues. Production on the film has since been suspended, with star William Hurt, who was on set when Jones was killed, pulling out of the project.
Several civil suits have recently been filed against Miller, Savin, Sedrish and various other individuals and companies associated with the film.
The Midnight Rider team was filming a dream sequence on railroad tracks along a trestle over the Altamaha River in Wayne County. The crew tried to clear the tracks when a train approached, but Jones was struck and killed. Several other crew members were injured. It’s unclear whether the crew had permission to be on the tracks.
Jones’ parents were the first to file a wrongful death suit against the director, producers and other entities affiliated with the film.
That suit argues that the “Defendants’ negligence actually and proximately caused Sarah’s injuries and death, rendering Defendants liable to Plaintiffs’ for Sarah’s injuries, pain and suffering, the value of her life, and all other elements of damages allowed under the laws of the State of Georgia.”
Jones’ parents are seeking “general and specific damages in amount to be determined by jury,” according to the civil complaint.
Both CSX Transportation, which operates the train tracks, and Rayonier, which owns the land around the tracks, were also named as defendants in the civil suit.
Although Rayonier had granted the production permission to film, the suit argues, the crew had not received permission from CSX to film on the train tracks along a trestle bridge.
In response to the charges filed Thursday, Jones’ father Richard released the following statement on behalf of himself and his wife, Elizabeth:
“Elizabeth and I are comfortable that the authorities were both careful and meticulous in investigating and bringing charges related to the incident that took our daughter’s life. We must allow the criminal justice process to proceed unhindered. Our mission remains the same: to ensure safety on all film sets. Safety for Sarah.”
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter about the civil suit, Jones’ parents said they took that action to make sure their daughter’s death wouldn’t be in vain and explained that they were hoping, through that case, to find out what really happened the day their daughter died.
Thursday’s announcement said there would be no further comment from the district attorney’s office on the pending case. Gardner also said he was unable to release any further information about the case beyond what was in the DA’s announcement. Miller
The most high-profile case in which a director was criminally charged in an on-set death was the 1982 helicopter crash during the filming of Twilight Zone: The Movie that killed Vic Morrow and child actors Myca Dinh Le and Renee Chen. Director John Landis and his four co-defendants were found not guilty of involuntary manslaughter after a lengthy 1987 trial, but the deaths did lead to significant improvements in production safety protocols.