On February 20 of last year, a 27 year old camera assistant named Sarah Jones lost her life on the set of Midnight Rider. Her cause of death was a train barreling through the set of the film. Several crew members were injured as shrapnel flew around after the train smashed a hospital gurney. Others were hospitalized. Ms. Jones died.
Much has been made of this tragedy, and the story rages on.
The film’s director, Randall Miller, is going to prison. He’ll spend two years in jail, and eight additional years on probation. Today his first assistant director, Hillary Schwartz, was sentenced to 10 years of probation.
This is historic. It marks the first time filmmakers have everbeen convicted of involuntary manslaughter after a death on their set. Assistant district attorney John Johnson says these rulings will effectively pop “the bubble of invincibility that Hollywood has about themselves. I think thatâ€™s the important part: that crew members now know they can speak up. That directors and producers and first assistant directors know that there are people out there, that thereâ€™s now finally somebody out there […] who will prosecute when someone fails in those responsibilities. From a historical standpoint, that makes an impact.“
What went wrong? Well, the court ruled that the director and his team failed to heed the clear warnings given to them by CSX Transportation- the company that owns and operates the train track where the tragedy took place. Emails sent by CSX to the filmmakers clearly stated that they did not have permission to film there, and warned them that it was a live track.
“I think it is easy to call this an accident; this was a very preventable tragedy,” says district attorney Jackie Johnson, who led the prosecution.
The rulings here could send ripples throughout the entire industry, as an on set accident resulting in death may no longer be seen as an accident. Directors, their assistants, location scouts, props departments, they can all be found liable if it’s proven that they were negligent in their duties. There’s a chain of command, and there’s simply no way that these kinds of gambles can happen when so many people have to sign off on it first.
“They have the mechanisms in place where safety should be followed,â€ said Jackie Johnson. â€œ(The convictions) got a lot of attention. Whether people recognize this as a warning, people that would otherwise steal a shot and be reckless with other peopleâ€™s lives, maybe theyâ€™ll think twice about that.“
This seems pretty cut and dry, and an example is being made of the man at the top of the production. The director is the leader, the person in charge, and the one ultimately responsible for what happens on their set. Mr. Miller failed in his duties, and a young life was tragically cut short. This sort of thing will hopefully never happen again.