On February 20, 2014, the first day of filming, the crew was on an active railroad trestle bridge, high over the Altamaha River in Wayne County, Georgia. Due to criminal negligence by the producers of the film, second camera assistant Sarah Jones was killed when she was struck by a CSX freight train that arrived on the trestle. Seven other crew members were also hurt, one seriously. Production was suspended the following week and multiple investigations into the incident were undertaken with several yet to be resolved. Miller, Savin, executive producer Jay Sedrish, and first assistant director Hillary Schwartz were charged with involuntary manslaughter and criminal trespass as well as being cited by OSHA for "serious" and "willful" safety violations. On March 9, 2015, Miller pled guilty to felony involuntary manslaughter and criminal trespassing and received a ten-year sentence, of which he is expected to serve two years in jail followed by probation. Sedrish was also convicted of felony involuntary manslaughter and criminal trespassing via a plea bargain and sentenced to ten years of probation. The charges against Savin were dropped as part of the plea agreement with her husband and business partner Randall Miller.
William Hurt as Gregg Allman - Hurt officially pulled out of the project on April 23, 2014. (see Production below)
Tyson Ritter as young Gregg Allman
Zoey Deutch as Mae
Eliza Dushku as Rita
Wyatt Russell as young Duane Allman
Bradley Whitford as Michael Lehman
Joel David Moore as Bill McEuen
Chad Lindberg as Joseph L. Campbell (a.k.a. The Legendary Red Dog)
Charles S. Dutton as Chank Middleton
On May 18, 2013, it was announced that Open Road Films, Randall Miller and Jody Savin planned to film a biopic based on the autobiography by Gregg Allman, My Cross To Bear. Miller was announced as the director and co-writer of the screenplay with Savin.
When Open Road Films was announced as the US distribution partner this was a substantial boost to the independent production, as the distributor is owned by AMC Theatres and Regal Entertainment Group, and thus at the time represented the ability to directly distribute to approximately 31% of the nation's theaters. Open Road Films Tom Ortenberg stated, "We are thrilled to have the opportunity to be a part of this movie. Gregg Allman's story is fascinating and we are looking forward to working with Randall, Jody and Gregg to bring this project to theaters." Miller and Savin would produce, along with their business partner Brad Rosenberger, and work closely with Gregg Allman and his manager Michael Lehman, who would serve as executive producers.
The name of the film was announced as Midnight Rider: The Gregg Allman Story on November 1, 2013, and was followed with promotional artwork, a Facebook page, and casting calls using that title.
On February 20, 2014, the film crew was transported an hour from Meddin Studios to a remote location for what was stated to be a "camera test". They had permission to film on property that was secured by fencing, owned by Rayonier for mill operations. Running through this property was CSX railroad property, which included the historic Doctortown railroad trestle in Wayne County. CSX claims that the production asked twice for permission to use their property, and was denied both times in writing. Sergeant Ben Robertson later wrote in an incident report, "In my presence, Mr. Sedrish was asked by an employee of CSX if he had permission to be on the trestle or tracks and Mr. Sedrish replied, 'That's complicated.'"
Under the direction of producer/director Randall Miller, the crew prepared and started filming a dream sequence involving William Hurt as Allman on a heavy metal hospital bed on this live railroad trestle, high above the Altamaha River. The producers had assured the cast and crew that it was safe to film on the railroad trestle. Even though official shooting of the film was scheduled to begin the following Monday, February 24, in and around Savannah, and February 20 had been referred to as a "camera test", it seems that the producers intended to shoot a substantial scene without the full crew.
While they were filming, a train came around a corner at 58 mph, giving the cast and crew less than a minute to evacuate from the filming location, a substantial way out onto the trestle. The only escape route was toward the oncoming train. Video of the crew indicates that they were unaware how fast it was approaching; some attempted to remove camera equipment and the metal bed from the trestle. They failed to remove the bed before the braking train rolled through, and many of the crew were trapped out on the trestle. The train struck and shattered the metal bed, sending shrapnel toward crew members. Fragments struck camera assistant Sarah Jones and propelled her toward the still fast moving train, resulting in her death. William Hurt got off the trestle before the train hit the hospital bed. Several other crew members were injured and were taken to hospital.
The railroad trestle that the film crew was on is a historic bridge crossing the Altamaha River in Wayne County at the location of the civil war Battle of Altamaha Bridge. According to the NTSB preliminary report, the train was traveling at 58 mph and the speed limit for this section of track was 70 mph. On February 21, sheriff's deputies identified the deceased as Sarah Elizabeth Jones, and confirmed that seven others were injured in the incident.
Executive Producer Nick Gant, creative director and principal of Meddin Studios, denied any wrongdoing or negligence in the incident, and told Variety that the crew was extremely well qualified, and blamed the railway company for the mishap. On February 24, the Wayne County Sheriff's Office released an incident report, in which it was stated that the production company had previously been denied permission by CSX to film on the train trestle. The investigation was later expanded to include the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the National Transportation Safety Board, the Federal Railroad Administration and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, investigating Jones's death as a negligent homicide.
Producers had intended to continue filming immediately following the tragedy, evidenced by their request for new film permits from the city of Savannah, but on February 26, 2014, Film Allman, LLC announced that the filming was on hold due to the death of Jones and the injuries to crew members. Randall Miller hired public relations strategist Matthew Hiltzik, of Hiltzik Strategies, on February 27, to address the mounting negative press for the production. On April 14, 2014, it was reported that director/producer Randall Miller was planning to resume filming in Los Angeles in June 2014.
On April 17, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees said they were notified by Unclaimed Freight Productions that they would begin pre-production "in a couple weeks", but that the company "did not ask for permission and was not granted permission to restart production". IATSE also stated, "As uncomfortable as this is, we cannot prevent them from starting up again. Whether or not they can get people to work for them is a decision that those people will have to make for themselves."
In response to Miller and Savin's decision to restart filming, film crews that had remained largely silent on the details of pending criminal investigations, mounted a very vocal protest against the production company and asked Gregg Allman, Open Road Films, William Hurt and other actors to withdraw their support for the film. The greatest concern was that despite what seemed to be clear negligence by the production company, resulting in serious injuries and a death, there was not a federal, state or union entity that could prevent them from resuming the film production. A Facebook group of crew members voicing opposition had grown to more than 10,800 members by April 23 when Hurt announced he was pulling out of the film.
Hurt, who was scripted to be lying on the metal bed in the scene, stated in an email to a friend that he had twice been assured by the production crew that the bridge scene was safe to film. In a personal letter Allman released to the press on April 25, he asked the producers not to proceed with the film writing: "Your desires as a filmmaker should not outweigh your obligations as a human being, I am asking you to do the right thing and to set aside your attempts to resume the production out of respect for Sarah, her family and the loss that all of us feel so deeply." Allman later filed a civil suit against Miller and Savin in an attempt to halt the film. Open Road Films has yet to withdraw their support for the film.
On August 12, 2014, Film Allman LLC filed a lawsuit against New York Marine Insurance in which the plaintifs contend that if they do not receive the $1.6 million insurance payout for the interruption caused by the fatal train collision during filming, they would be unable to continue with the film production. The lawsuit also revealed that they had rewritten the film script, and submitted it to the insurance carrier, to be about 1970s rock music in general, and not specifically about Gregg Allman. This revelation, along with Gregg Allman's undisclosed out of court settlement with Miller and Savin's Film Allman LLC, has raised substantial questions as to whether the production would still be considered a "Gregg Allman biopic", based on his autobiography, if they were able to attempt to restart filming. The insurance policy has a clear stipulation that the insured must adhere to all safety standards and laws to prevent loss. However, Film Allman LLC has been cited by OSHA for putting their crew at risk both for falls from the trestle, a "serious citation", as well as in danger of being struck by a train, a "willful citation", in addition to criminal indictments of the three managing producers and 1st AD for criminal trespassing and involuntary manslaughter.
On October 2, it was revealed that Randall Miller was in pre-production for a film called Slick Rock Trail and working with casting director Rick Pagano of Pagano/Manwiller Casting. Pagano had also worked with Miller as casting director on Midnight Rider, CBGB, Nobel Son and Bottle Shock. It seems the film has similarities to the Midnight Rider script including borrowing a line from Gregg Allman's book which is also a common quote of the origin story of the Allman Brothers band. In the quote Allman refers to a band with two drummers as a potential train wreck. It is unclear at this time if the Slick Rock Trail script is the same one Miller presented, as a rewrite of Midnight Rider, in his lawsuit against New York Marine Insurance.
In the wake of Jones' death, her family, friends, supporters and others in the film industry have launched a campaign for greater awareness and attention to safety issues in the production of films and television.
Miller, Savin, and executive producer/unit production manager Jay Sedrish were charged with involuntary manslaughter and criminal trespass on July 3, 2014. Miller and Savin originally pleaded not guilty. On September 10, 2014, Hillary Schwartz, the first assistant director of Midnight Rider, was charged with involuntary manslaughter and criminal trespassing.
On March 9, 2015, just before the trial was to commence, the DA agreed to plea bargains for two of the defendants. Miller and Sedrish entered guilty pleas to felony involuntary manslaughter and criminal trespassing, while charges were dropped against Savin as part of Miller's plea.
Miller received a sentence of ten years, of which he was expected to serve two years in jail followed by probation (during which he will be precluded from working as a director or assistant director or other capacity involving employee safety) as well as a fine and community service obligation. Miller was remanded to custody immediately following the plea hearing to begin serving his sentence in the Wayne County jail. He was released in March 2016 after serving one year of his term.
Sedrish was sentenced to ten years probation and a fine, and will likewise be precluded from working as a director or assistant director or other capacity involving employee safety. On March 10, 2015 Schwartz pleaded guilty to felony involuntary manslaughter and criminal trespass, and was also sentenced to 10 years probation.
Richard and Elisabeth Jones, Sarah's parents, filed a wrongful death lawsuit, on behalf of their daughter, against CSX, the producers of the film Midnight Rider, and related companies and individuals, on May 21, 2014, in Chatham County, Georgia, where the film production was based. The complaint alleged that the defendants "had knowledge, actual or constructive, that the scene filmed on February 20 was to take place on active railroad tracks, without permission from CSX" and that they "knew of the danger presented by filming under those circumstances." In reply, CSX stated that it repeatedly denied the producers permission to use their property and railroad trestle. They also revealed that their employees on two previous CSX trains saw the film crew congregating near their property where there is also a railroad crossing. The Jones attorneys contend that given these warning signs CSX should have slowed the train and sent an investigator to the site. Sarah Jones' family settled with a number of parties before trial. Remaining as defendants in the lawsuit are CSX Transportation, Meddin Studios, and Jeffery Gant.
In July 2017, a jury awarded $11.2 million to Jones's family.
In an attempt to halt the effort to restart filming of Midnight Rider by Randall Miller and Jody Savin, Gregg Allman, the subject of the film and executive producer, filed suit on April 28, 2014, in Chatham County Superior Court. Gregg Allman claimed that Randall Miller and Jody Savin had failed to pay the agreed upon option price for the film rights and had failed to start primary photography by the date stipulated in the option contract. After one day of court proceedings that included Randall Miller testifying on the stand, the trial came to a halt as Allman and Millers attorneys agreed to an out of court settlement. Nothing has been publicly revealed about this settlement.
On March 23, 2015, the National Transportation Safety Board adopted a final report, which cited the probable cause of the accident as "the film crew's unauthorized entry onto the CSX Transportation right-of-way at the Altamaha River bridge with personnel and equipment, despite CSX Transportation's repeated denial of permission to access the railroad property. Contributing to the accident was the adjacent property owner's actions to facilitate the film crew's access to the right-of-way and bridge."
The United States Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited Film Allman LLC for willful and serious citations with a proposed penalty of $74,900 on August 14, 2014. The producers chose to appeal the charges and fines proposed by OSHA, and a hearing was set for March 31, 2015, in Savannah.
The Federal Railroad Administration, on October 15, 2014, stated that they are still investigating the train collision. A spokesperson said, "The FRA is investigating the February 20, 2014 accident that occurred on the CSX rail line in Nahunta, Georgia. Once completed, the investigation will identify the root cause of the accident, and we will take all appropriate enforcement actions."
The National Council on Occupational Safety and Health, or COSH, cited Sarah Jones in one of seven case studies of workplace deaths that could have been prevented in its annual report. Hairstylist Joyce Gilliard, also injured in the Midnight Rider tragedy, spoke about the report on a conference call with reporters and separately said in a statement, "After what I saw and lived through, I want to advocate for safety and prevent any other tragedies or injuries in the workplace."