The Feb. 20 death of a camera assistant during a film shoot in Georgia has prompted calls for improved safety measures on television and movie sets. Sarah Jones, 27, was hit by an oncoming train while working on the independent film “Midnight Rider.” Her death raises questions about the industry’s safety standards, particularly when it comes to filming outside Los Angeles, said Richard Charnley, a partner in the Los Angeles office of Washington’s Arent Fox. Charnley, who has handled cases involving deaths on film sets, talked to The National Law Journal about the incident. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
NLJ: What happened to Sarah Jones?
Charnley: Ms. Jones was on a camera crew. I don’t know if they were actually rolling at the time, but they were setting up a shot on a trestle. The train came through faster than people thought it was going to come through. Sarah was carrying some heavy camera equipment and she didn’t get off the trestle fast enough. Even some of the people who did get off the trestle were hurt.
NLJ: This isn’t the first time someone has died while on a film shoot. Why the big reaction in Hollywood?
Charnley: Certainly, there’s always some risk involved in filming a car scene where there’s a chase going on, or you’re filming planes crashing or almost any kind of accident with machines. But it’s rare when an assistant camera operator gets hurts. This was simply going to be a filming of a stationary shot on a trestle. The train wasn’t supposed to be involved at all.
NLJ: Some have used this incident to point out lax safety standards, especially outside Los Angeles. What are your thoughts?
Charnley: There are safety bulletins that apply across the board anywhere when you’re filming with union crews in the United States. They are not law, but they most certainly direct what we should be doing and how we should do our work.
In California, they have a more defined, designated set of safety observers on the set. When you get outside of Los Angeles and you are using, for instance, local union help—and Sarah Jones, by the way, was a very accomplished camera assistant, so she is not in this category—those people may not be 100 percent aware of some of these rules and traditions, and they need to be taught.
NLJ: Tell me about the trials you’ve handled.
Charnley: There was the death of Dar Robinson. Dar Robinson was considered in his lifetime the king of the stuntman. He died filming a motorcycle scene in the middle of the Arizona desert. His family sued [producer] Dino De Laurentiis.
The next large one I handled was in North Carolina. There was a car explosion scene that was set up by a local demolition expert. Everybody’s ready to film, and at the last minute he wanted to check one last detail. He went back onto the set, which is a parking lot where the car was going to blow up, and got another guy to go with him who didn’t know anything about how bombs were rigged, and somehow they cross-wired and blew themselves up in front of everybody.
The third one that went to trial was a camera operator filming an airplane crash in “Flight of the Phoenix.”
NLJ: Jones’ family has said they plan to sue. What kind of case do you think they have?
Charnley: I’m pretty sure Ms. Jones was a union employee. It will be difficult to claim she wasn’t at the outset covered by the workers’ compensation statutes. But the thing that’s intriguing to me is, why wasn’t an arrangement made with the train company to film on these tracks? From what I read, there wasn’t an arrangement, and it sounds unusual to me.
The fact that we have someone on a camera crew, that’s something too. It’s a tough, hard physical job. She was pulling and hauling heavy equipment out of the way of this train and it slowed her down. I don’t think it gets more compelling than that.
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