A jury awarded an $8.6 million verdict on Thursday in the death of “Walking Dead” stuntman John Bernecker, who fell to his death on the set of the show in Senoia, Ga., in July 2017.
The jurors found that AMC Networks’ entity, TWD 8, and its production company, Stalwart Films, were negligent in Bernecker’s death. The jury found that the parent company, AMC Networks, was not liable.
The verdict is a victory for Bernecker’s parents, Susan and Hagen Bernecker, who had accused AMC of cutting corners and ignoring its own safety protocols. Jurors in the Gwinnett County courthouse, in Lawrenceville, Ga., heard six days of argument and testimony in the case, including a frame-by-frame breakdown of video of the accident. They deliberated for two days before reaching their verdict.
Bernecker was playing in a scene in which he was supposed to fall over a railing and off a balcony, landing on a pad 21 feet below. But as he flipped over, he unexpectedly grabbed onto the railing with his left hand. That changed his trajectory, causing him to swing back towards the wall. He missed his mark by nine feet, landing on his head on the cement floor. He died at the hospital two days later.
“John was a remarkably talented stunt professional who had an incredibly bright future in the film industry,” said attorney Jeffrey Harris, who represented Bernecker’s mother in the case. “My sincere hope is this verdict sends a clear message regarding the need to both elevate and strictly adhere to industry safety standards every day, on every shoot, on every film set. John’s tragic and preventable death happened as a result of a series of safety-related failures. Learning from these failures will go a long way in making sure that similar tragedies do not happen to another performer or another family.”
AMC issued its own statement, defending the safety of the production and extending its sympathies to Bernecker’s family.
“There is no winning or losing in this situation, this was a terrible and tragic accident and our sympathies continue to go out to John Bernecker’s family and friends,” the company said. “The set of ‘The Walking Dead’ is safe and is managed to meet or exceed all industry standards and guidelines related to stunts and stunt safety. That has been the case across the production of 10 seasons and more than 150 episodes, and it continues to be the case today, notwithstanding this very sad and isolated accident.”
In his closing argument, Harris argued that safety practices had become lax in the production’s eighth season.
“There’s a total failure of the checks and balances that should have been in place to prevent this tragedy from happening,” Harris told the jury. “There are policies that just aren’t followed. That is ultimately what results in his death.”
David Dial argued the case for the defendants, saying that Bernecker’s death could not have been reasonably foreseen.
“It’s a horrific, horrible accident, but nobody acted negligently,” Dial argued. “No one acted carelessly or recklessly.”
During the trial, Harris questioned the stunt coordinator, Monty Simons, about why there was no padding closer to the wall. Simons testified that just before the stunt, Bernecker asked that the pad be moved further away. Simons was spotting Bernecker from the far side of the pad, and was more worried that he would go long, rather than land directly under the balcony.
“Never before have I ever heard or seen of anybody grabbing the railing and basically doing a gymnastics high bar exit that gets him flowing away from his mark, that he misses his mark by nine feet,” Simons said. “I have never heard of anything like that and I couldn’t conceive of it, and John didn’t either.”
Harris pressed him on whether Bernecker might have been reluctant to ask for more pads because it would halt the production, which was running behind schedule.
“I gave John every single thing he needs,” Simons said. “That does not keep me up at night at all. The stunt was completely ready to be completely performed safety. Why John didn’t drop the gun, went over the railing and held on, and then grabbed other stuff, and kicked the wall, and all this stuff, I do not know. That’s something I will ponder the rest of my life. I gave him everything he needed to perform the stunt safely.”
Harris also argued that the other actor in the scene, Austin Amelio, may have touched Bernecker just before the fall, which might have startled him. On the stand, Amelio adamantly denied touching him.
After the fall, Amelio said, “I was in complete and utter shock… It’s the worst day of my life.”
The jury exonerated Amelio, finding that he bore no responsibility for Bernecker’s death.
The jury broke down responsibility for the accident between the corporate and individual defendants, allocating percentages to each. The jurors found that Tom Luse, the unit production manager, was 15% responsible; Jeff January, the first assistant director, was 10% responsible; and Simons was 4% responsible. Bernecker was found to be 6% responsible. Stalwart Films was held accountable for 40% of the accident, and TWD 8 was held 25% responsible. The damages are expected to be covered by insurance.
The jury also found that punitive damages were not warranted.
A key point of contention was whether Bernecker was an employee of Stalwart Films or an independent contractor. Had he been an employee, Georgia law would have required his family to go through the workers’ compensation system. The jury found, however, that Bernecker was an independent contractor, which allowed his parents to recover civil damages.