Atlanta, GA (WorkersCompensation.com) – An Atlanta jury has awarded the estate of stuntman John Bernecker more than $8 million in a wrongful death suit.
Bernecker was working on the set of the TV show Walking Dead in July 2017 when he fell more than 20 feet onto a concrete slab. As previously reported in WorkersCompensation.com, Coweta (Georgia) County Deputy Sheriff J. P. Traylor said Bernecker was supposed to fall from the railing of a balcony 22-feet off the ground onto a pad made of boxes, PortaPit pads and another large pad.
Traylor’s report indicated that Assistant Director Matthew Goodman stated that Bernecker signaled he was ready, got most of the way over the railing, but “did not appear to get good separation from the balcony.” Goodwin said Bernecker tried to grab the railing with both hands, but ultimately failed and landed on his head, missing the padding by inches.
After an investigation into the incident, OSHA fined Stalwart Films, LLC, the series production company, $12,675 for “serious” citations “for the company’s failure to provide adequate protection from fall hazards,” the maximum allowed by law.
According to court records, the suit filed in Gwinnett County was brought by Bernecker’s mother who asked for between $40 million and $100 million in total damages from AMC Networks; Austin Amelio, a Walking Dead regular; Stalwart Films and members of the television series’ production crew.
Testimony indicated that Bernecker was at least partially at fault for the fall for grabbing onto the hand railing.
The lawsuit alleged that the television show failed to follow its own safety policies, and that it failed to anticipate the possibility that Bernecker could be injured.
Attorneys from Wheeler, Hudgins, Gunn and Dial representing AMC told jurors that Bernecker was an employee of Stalwart Film, and not an independent contractor. Essentially, attorneys argued, for the purposes of the trial, Bernecker’s injuries should be treated as a workers’ compensation issue.
Jurors rejected that argument, though, and sided with the Bernecker estate, finding that Bernecker was an independent contractor. The jury also found that AMC was not at fault in the case.
The $8.6 million settlement is for total damages. No punitive damages were assessed.
“John was a remarkably talented stunt professional who had an incredibly bright future in the film industry,” Jeff Harris, the Bernecker estate’s lawyer said in a statement. “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.”