A trial will get underway Tuesday in a Georgia courtroom to determine whether AMC Networks was at fault in the death of “Walking Dead” stuntman John Bernecker.
Bernecker’s parents, Susan and Hagen Bernecker, accuse the network of cutting corners and ignoring its own safety standards, leading to their son’s death. Bernecker died in July 2017, after falling 22 feet from a balcony and landing on his head and neck on a concrete floor. AMC has denied responsibility, saying that Bernecker’s death was an “unforeseeable accident” caused by his own negligence.
Susan Bernecker will be represented by Jeffrey Harris, the Savannah attorney who also represented the family of Sarah Jones, the camera assistant who was killed on the set of “Midnight Rider” in 2014. In that case, Harris won an $11.2 million verdict.
In the “Walking Dead” case, Harris is expected to argue that Monty Simons, the stunt coordinator, used an unsafe set-up for the stunt, despite knowing from a prior stunt that the arrangement was inadequate. The plaintiffs also allege that Austin Amelio, an actor in the scene, touched Bernecker just before the fall, against instructions not to do so.
The defense maintains that Bernecker voluntarily accepted the risks of the fall, and personally approved the “catcher” system of pads that was used in the stunt. According to a pre-trial memo, Bernecker told Simons to move the pads just before the stunt, and gave a thumbs up. The defense contends that Bernecker grabbed a railing for unknown reasons, which changed the trajectory of his fall and caused him to land underneath the balcony.
AMC is also arguing that it contracted out the production of the show to Stalwart Films, and that AMC therefore is not responsible for Bernecker’s death. The plaintiffs contend that AMC exercised control over the show’s budget, including its budget for stunts, and that AMC provided the show’s safety manual.
The jurors will also be asked to determine whether Bernecker was an employee of Stalwart Films or an independent contractor. Stalwart Films contends that he was an employee, and that therefore his family’s only recourse under Georgia law is the workers’ compensation system. The defense also claims that Amelio and Simons are likewise immune from liability as co-employees. The plaintiffs claim that Bernecker was an independent contractor.
The trial, in Gwinnett County court, is expected to last about 7-8 days.