Judge Rules Against AMC in ‘Walking Dead’ Stuntman Death

John Bernecker
Courtesy of John Bernecker's Facebook

A judge has rejected AMC Networks’ claim that it cannot be held responsible for the death of John Bernecker, a stuntman who fell to his death on the set of “The Walking Dead” in 2017.

Bernecker’s family filed suit in January 2018, alleging that the network cut corners on safety precautions. A trial is scheduled to be begin in state court in Gwinnett County, Ga., on Dec. 9.

In motions filed in August, attorneys for AMC argued that Bernecker was in control of the stunt, and directed the placement of pads that would cushion his fall. Bernecker flipped over a railing and fell 21 feet, just missing the pads. He landed on his head, and died the next day at a hospital. AMC argued that under Georgia law, Bernecker had assumed the risks of the fall, and therefore AMC could not be held liable.

“While his death is undoubtedly tragic, under controlling Georgia law, the affirmative defense of assumption of the risk bars Plaintiffs’ claims against each of the Defendants because Bernecker, a professional stuntman, understood and appreciated the dangers and risks associated with the high fall and voluntarily attempted the stunt without coercion,” the AMC attorneys wrote.

Attorneys for Berneckers’ parents argued that Bernecker was distracted because the other actor in the scene pushed him unexpectedly, and that therefore Bernecker could not have fully accepted the risks.

In a ruling on Tuesday, Judge Emily Brantley rejected AMC’s argument, saying it was “patently obvious” that a jury will have to determine whether Bernecker had sufficient knowledge of the risks to make AMC immune from liability.

AMC also argued that it cannot be held liable because the production was handled by another company, Stalwart Films.

“There is no evidence to support a finding that the AMC Defendants owed Bernecker a legal duty of any kind,” AMC’s attorneys argued in a motion for summary judgment. “The AMC Defendants did not have any relationship, contractual or otherwise, with Bernecker. The AMC Defendants also did not direct or control the method and manner in which Bernecker’s stunt was performed.”

In response, the plaintiffs argued that AMC was ultimately responsible for the show. They also pointed to a safety manual created by AMC for the show, which stated, “AMC is a company that acknowledges our accountability and responsibility for safe production.”

Brantley ruled against AMC on Oct. 2, finding that the plaintiffs had shown sufficient connection between AMC and the production to allow the matter to go before a jury. Brantley also rejected AMC’s bid to prevent the plaintiffs’ expert, veteran stuntman Conrad Palmisano, from testifying at trial.

The parties have agreed that punitive damages in the case are capped at $250,000 under Georgia law, as there was no specific intent to cause harm.

AMC issued a statement in response to the rulings:

“This was a tragic accident,” the company said. “While we continue to believe our motions for summary judgment were appropriate and supported by the facts in this case and the law, we respect the Court’s decision — without making any determination on the merits of either side’s arguments — to allow the case to proceed.”