SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — The civil trial of a railroad company accused of negligence in the 2014 death of a movie worker opened Tuesday with jurors watching video of the film crew fleeing a freight train moments before the fatal crash on a Georgia railroad bridge.
Sarah Jones, a 27-year-old camera assistant, was killed on the first day of shooting "Midnight Rider," a movie based on the life of Allman Brothers Band singer Gregg Allman. Jones' parents are suing CSX Transportation, saying the train's engineer should have braked and two other trains that passed the film crew alongside the tracks in the hour before the crash should have called in a warning.
Six other film workers were injured in the collision on Feb. 20, 2014. Actor William Hurt, who was on the bridge in the role of Allman, escaped uninjured. Hurt sat outside the courtroom for a time Tuesday but was not called to testify. It was unknown when or if he would take the witness stand.
The freight train was traveling 56 mph when it struck a hospital bed the movie crew had placed across the tracks, spraying crew members with shrapnel. The video, taken by a crew member, did not show the fatal collision but ended with a loud crunch as the screen went dark.
"People are literally running for their lives and instead of hitting the brakes, they decided to plow on through," Jeffrey Harris, an attorney for Jones' parents, told the jury in his opening statement Tuesday.
CSX attorney Jay Traynham told jurors the engineer, Michael Ryan, was afraid to apply the train's emergency brakes for fear of causing a derailment that could have toppled its payload of shipping containers onto the crew.
He blamed the crash on "Midnight Rider" production managers, who had been denied permission to film on the train tracks twice — each time in writing. Randall Miller, the film's director, spent a year in jail after pleading guilty to charges of involuntary manslaughter and criminal trespassing.
"CSX was placed in a situation," Traynham said. "Michael Ryan did the best he could do ... in a split second because somebody stuck a bed on the railroad track."
Two crew members testified they assumed filmmakers had CSX's permission to film on the tracks.
Izabeau Giannakopoulos, who shot behind-the-scenes photos and video for the production and made the video of the fleeing crew, said she never felt she was trespassing or in any danger until a co-worker started yelling for the group to get off the tracks as the train approached.
"You're asking if I feel deceived by my superiors?" Giannakopoulos replied to a CSX attorney's question. "Yes, I do."
The jury also saw videotaped testimony of operators of the two CSX trains that passed the film crew safely before the group ventured onto the train trestle spanning the Altamaha River near the town of Jesup.
The train operators said it's common to see people alongside railroad tracks taking photos and video and they didn't see the crew members posing any immediate danger.
"We didn't know they were trespassing," said CSX engineer Stanley Craig. "We just thought they were taking pictures."
The crash left the "Midnight Rider" movie in limbo. Allman died in May.