On July 17, a jury in Savannah, Georgia awarded $3.9 million in damages to the family of Sarah Jones, a camera assistant who was killed while filming a biopic about Greg Allman on a railroad trestle near Jesup, Georgia. The incident had already resulted in a raft of citations, fines, criminal charges, and convictions. The surprise in this award is that it was rendered not against the production company or the filmmakers, but rather, against CSX Transportation, which owns and operates the trestle where Jones was killed.
On the face of it, the verdict is surprising; after all, the production company, the director, and the first assistant director of the film all knew that the film crew were committing criminal trespassing when they set up to film on the trestle that day. They knowingly withheld safety information from the film crew, and they failed to take any reasonable precautions to protect the crew. CSX, for its part, had repeatedly denied permission to the production company to shoot on its trestle. So how could the jury pin any blame on CSX?
Third-Party Negligence in a Worker’s Death
The jury in the Chatham County State Court heard evidence that CSX knew that the film crew was present at the trestle the day of the accident, but took no steps to prevent the crash. Jones’s family presented evidence that two CSX freight trains had crossed the trestle in the hour before the accident while the film crew was standing on either side of the railroad tracks, but the operators of those trains never notified their dispatchers. CSX operators are required by company policy to immediately report trespassers on or near its tracks. As a result of their failure to follow company policy, no actions were taken that could have averted the crash.
Jurors ultimately issued an $11 million verdict in the case, and assigned 35% of the blame for the accident to CSX—hence, the $3.9 million fine.
The film industry was already following this case with interest, for obvious reasons—but there is also a takeaway for property owners and employers whose sites are scouted as filming locations. Even if a film crew is trespassing illegally on your property, if you do not take steps to prevent their exposure to hazards, you may be found liable in civil court for any injuries that occur. It’s not enough to put your denial in writing; you should take steps to secure your site and remove trespassers.
Protecting Film Crews: Safety for Sarah
Jones’s parents, who brought the suit, have created a foundation, “Safety for Sarah,” that promotes awareness of set safety issues in the film industry. One of their initiatives has been to support the development of a free Set Safety app, available for both Android and Apple platforms, which enables users to quickly report unsafe working conditions and excessive work hours and provides access to film industry safety bulletins published by the Contract Services Administration Trust Fund.