An Atlanta jury has awarded $8.6 million in damages to the family of a stuntman killed on the set of the TV series “The Walking Dead.”
John Bernecker, who was 33, died in 2017 from injuries sustained while filming a scene for the series’ eighth season. The seven-day trial began early this month in Gwinnett County, Ga., where the show is based, after his mother, Susan Bernecker, brought a wrongful-death suit against the cable network last year.
Bernecker, an experienced stuntman who appeared in several films, including “Get Out” and “Logan,” died after performing a 22-foot fall off a balcony, landing on a part of the ground that wasn’t padded or protected. His death, from blunt force trauma, was ruled accidental by a coroner.
But the suit alleged that there was no ambulance on site and that it took 30 minutes from the time of the fall until Bernecker was evacuated by helicopter for medical treatment.
Attorneys for AMC Networks, producer of the 10-season-long show, argued that his death was the result of a mistake. “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,” AMC Networks said in an earlier statement.
Jeff Harris, the attorney for the Bernecker family, however, argued that AMC failed to follow its own policies and procedures regarding safety during the stunt. According to Harris, there was no production safety representative, and a 10-foot capture system used in Bernecker’s planned fall was inadequate.
Stalwart Films and TWD Productions VIII — production companies affiliated with AMC — were found liable in the wrongful-death suit.
In a statement following the verdict, Harris said: “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 said: “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 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.”
Although 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.