Lawrenceville, GA— A Georgia jury Thursday handed down an $8.6 million verdict for the 2017 fall that killed a stuntman on the set of The Walking Dead. Bernecker v. Stalwart Films LLC, et al., 18-C-00435.
Jurors deliberated for the better part of three days before reaching their verdict, which found the production studios and personnel overseeing filming of the stunt responsible for the 20-plus-foot fall that killed John Bernecker, 33. However, jurors cleared AMC Networks, the company that owns and airs the zombie apocalypse series, and Austin Amelio, an actor involved in the stunt scene, of liability.
Bernecker himself was found 6% at fault for the accident, likely reducing the post-verdict award to $8.084 million.
Bernecker’s parents claim a lack of appropriate safety measures caused their son to miss his mark on a 10 x 10-foot safety pad, hitting the unprotected ground beneath the balcony.
The six-day trial focused in large part on whether Stalwart Films, a production company overseeing filming of the scene, employed sufficient safety measures for the stunt. During Tuesday’s closings, Harris Lowry Manton’s Jeffrey Harris, representing Bernecker's mother, told jurors Stalwart and the production crew failed to provide a large enough safety pad or safety spotters for the stunt, despite encountering difficulty on an earlier balcony fall.
He said that lack of equipment turned deadly when actor Amelio unexpectedly touched Bernecker during the stunt, startling him and altering his fall.
“The Walking Dead, the company, the production, the people involved, just didn’t plan for anything other than complete success,” Harris said. “And that’s what causes John’s death.”
Harris acknowledged Bernecker technically had the right to demand more safety equipment before performing the stunt. But he said evidence showed Bernecker felt pressured by the production crew to perform the stunt with the gear already budgeted and on-hand. “Does it make any sense that this man’s going to be able to say, ”Whoa, whoa. Stop everything. Stop the production. Let’s go downtown and get some more port-a-pits because [the stunt coordinator] failed to plan for this eventuality?” Harris asked. “That’s not the way it was going to work in the real world.”
But the defense argues that Amelio never touched Bernecker. Instead, they argue the accident was the completely unexpected result of Bernecker holding onto the balcony too long, altering the path of his fall, despite reasonable safety equipment on-hand.
During his closing Thursday, Weinberg Wheeler Hudgins Gunn & Dial’s David Dial said evidence showed the crew was focused on safety surrounding their stunts, and noted that the work site had never had a similar accident. “Yes we had a very horrific accident [when Bernecker fell],” Dial said, “but there’s simply no evidence that this was an unsafe place to work.”
And Dial pushed back against the contention that Bernecker may have felt pressured to perform a stunt he considered unsafe. Dial noted Bernecker directed the positioning of the safety pit before the scene, moving it away from the balcony before the fall. And Dial noted that Bernecker, as both a stuntman and a stunt coordinator, had previously rejected stunts he considered too dangerous.
“He knew exactly what the catcher system was and what it was going to be. And he never expressed any dissatisfaction with it,” Dial said. “The idea that somehow he was intimidated into not being who John Bernecker was, is just not supported by any evidence. The evidence is he would speak up.”
In a statement issued after the verdict, Harris said he hoped the verdict served as a lesson for production companies and crews going forward. "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," Harris said. "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.”
This is a breaking story. CVN has reached out to representatives for each side and will update this article with their comments and other information, as it becomes available.
Email Arlin Crisco at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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