Fatal Accident During Film Shoot Brings Likelihood of Lawsuit

Amtrak_Across_the_James.jpgThe death of a camera assistant during a film shoot in Georgia has raised questions about film crew safety, amid allegations that the filmmakers placed a higher priority on completing the film on schedule and under budget. The woman’s family is expected to file a lawsuit in connection with her death, but many important details of the case remain unknown. Prior court cases involving film shoot injuries or deaths have involved employment-related questions, such as whether an injured person was an employee of a filmmaker, as a key part of determining liability.

The decedent, Sarah Jones, was second assistant camera on a low-budget independent film entitled Midnight Rider. On February 20, 2014, she and others were setting up to shoot a dream sequence, which involved placing a bed frame and mattress in the middle of the tracks on a bridge trestle spanning the Altamaha River outside of Doctortown, Georgia. Crew members were warned that, in the event a train approached, they would have sixty seconds to get out of its way.

When a train did appear, Jones, a hairstylist, and the director were still on the trestle. The hairstylist told the Hollywood Reporter that their only way off involved running towards the train. She ran for a gangplank, but the train struck her left arm before she made it there. She survived, but suffered a major fracture. Another crew member managed to pull the director to safety. Jones, however, did not make it to the gangplank, and was killed by the train.

At this point, it remains unclear if any legal claim arising from this incident will involve negligence claims against the filmmakers, premises liability claims against the railroad, or a combination of claims. Federal and state safety agencies are investigating the incident, and details have surfaced regarding allegedly lax safety measures during the shoot. Jones herself had reportedly expressed concerns about safety on the set. It is not even certain if the railroad company had granted the film crew permission to be on the tracks that day.

Prior cases involving injuries or deaths during film shoots have addressed employment-related questions in order to determine liability. A Georgia court, ruling on a motion for summary judgment in a wrongful death lawsuit, considered whether a crew members was employed by a student filmmaker, or by a company set up to handle the financial aspects of the film production. Lamensdorf v. Welin, et al, No. 5:09-cv-424, order (M.D. Ga., May 17, 2011). While a crew member was raising an aerial lift during a nighttime shoot, the lift accidentally made contact with a power line. This caused a surge that flowed through the generator to a set of lights, fatally electrocuting another crew member.

The decedent’s family sued the crew member operating the lift and the company managing the production, among others. The court denied a motion for summary judgment filed by the defendants based on state worker’s compensation law, finding no evidence that the decedent or the defendant crew member were anyone’s employees. A California appellate court addressed somewhat similar questions with regard to an injury during a big-budget Hollywood film shoot in Barry v. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp., No. B221785, opinon (Cal. App. – 2nd Dist., Sep. 20, 2011).

Lebowitz & Mzhen’s personal injury attorneys help people in the Washington, DC area recover their just compensation when they have suffered injuries because of negligence or tortious conduct. For a free and confidential consultation, contact us today online or at (800) 654-1949.

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Photo credit: By jpmueller99 from Shenandoah Valley of VA, USA (Amtrak Across the James) [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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