Wrongful death trial over ‘Walking Dead’ stuntman begins
The wrongful death trial of “Walking Dead” stuntman John Bernecker started Tuesday in Georgia, with AMC Networks’ attorneys arguing that his tragic death was a result of his mistake.
Bernecker, who was 33, died in 2017 from injuries sustained while filming a scene for the series’ eighth season. A trial started Tuesday in Gwinnett County, Georgia, where the show is based, after his mother Susan Bernecker brought a wrongful death suit against the cable network last year. It is expected to last 10 days.
While film- and TV-related deaths have declined over the last two decades, thanks to new safety provisions and the use of digital effects to replace physical stunts, there have been a series of high-profile deaths and injuries on sets in recent years. Sarah Jones was killed in Georgia in a 2014 train accident during the making of “Midnight Rider,” and her family was awarded $11.2 million after filing a wrongful death lawsuit. Two crew members of the Tom Cruise movie “American Made” died in a plane crash during production in Colombia in 2015. And in 2018, stuntwoman Joi “S.J.” Harris died after performing a motorcycle stunt for the superhero sequel “Deadpool 2” in Vancouver, Canada.
Bernecker died after performing a 22-foot fall off a balcony, landing on a part of the ground that wasn’t padded or protected. Bernecker’s death, from blunt force trauma, was ruled accidental by a coroner. The suit alleged that there was no ambulance on site and that it took 30 minutes from the time of the fall until he was evacuated by helicopter for medical treatment.
“This was a tragic accident, and our deepest sympathies continue to go out to John Bernecker’s family and friends,” AMC Networks, producer of the 10-season-long show, said in a statement. “The set of ‘The Walking Dead’ is safe, and is regularly evaluated to ensure that it adheres to all industry standards and guidelines related to stunts and stunt safety, notwithstanding this very sad and isolated accident.”
Bernecker was experienced, appearing in films including “Get Out,” “Logan” and “The Fate of the Furious.” His family filed the wrongful death suit in January 2018, alleging that the fatal fall resulted from a lack of rehearsal by the production and failure to follow industry standards.
AMC, however, has blamed Bernecker for the death. Despite having placed safety mats for his landing, the stuntman hung onto a rail that changed the trajectory of his landing, missing the mats, the company argued in court.
“Unfortunately, the evidence will show that Mr. Bernecker made a mistake,” David Dial, an attorney representing AMC, said in court Tuesday. “That purposeful action in hanging on is what took him away from the safety of the mat that he located.”
Attorney Jeff Harris, acting for the Bernecker family, said on the first day of the trial that AMC failed to follow its own policies and procedures regarding safety during the stunt. There was no production safety representative and a 10-foot capture system used in Bernecker’s planned fall was inadequate, Harris said. “No stunt performer has died performing a fall in 17 years because there are specific safety policies and procedures in place,” Harris said.
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