Lawyers are preparing the wrongful death trial next week for a stuntman who was killed by a fall on the set of AMC’s The Walking Dead, which is filmed in Georgia. Katheryn Tucker of Law.com laid out what the lawyers for both parties will be arguing in next week’s trial. This article is a summary of her writing and can be found in more detail here.
In 2017, John Bernecker, 33, died from a 25-foot stunt fall off a balcony on the set of The Walking Dead. His parents, Susan and Hagen Bernecker, are suing AMC and others, alleging they cut corners on budgets and safety. AMC and other defendants have denied liability, saying the death was an accident. Jury selection is set to begin Monday and opening statements are planned for Tuesday.
According to Law.com, the complaint alleges that AMC “put pressure on the production services company, Stalwart Films, to produce episodes of The Walking Dead as cheaply as possible” and “orchestrated a pattern of filming and producing The Walking Dead cheaply and, ultimately, unsafely.”
“The parents accuse the companies of “cutting corners” on safety precautions, including the “apple box” used to give stunt performers additional height or leverage to control falls and the area of padding below to prevent contact with the ground. The complaint said the “port-a-pit” pads on top of 22-inch cardboard boxes tied together by rope did not fully extend under the balcony and that no air bags or spotters were in place to avert disaster.”
AMC and other defendants deny these allegations. Law.com said, “The company’s summary in the pretrial order said he “voluntarily” attempted a “high-fall stunt” and rehearsed it in advance. But then during filming, the defense summary said, he “unexpectedly” grabbed the balcony railing just before he went over, breaking the fall enough to cause him to land too close to the balcony instead of further out, where he himself had directed the pads to be located.”
Continuing, “Almost immediately after the stunt sequence began, Bernecker unexpectedly grabbed the top railing on the balcony, which was contrary to the instructions he had been given. For reasons only he could know, Bernecker unexpectedly continued to hold onto the railing with his left hand as he went up and over,” the defense summary said. “Bernecker’s unforeseeable decision to continue holding onto the railing altered his trajectory and caused his body to swing underneath the balcony. As this was occurring, Bernecker made several more purposeful movements which caused him to miss the cater system and land upside down several feet underneath the balcony.”
What went on in Bernecker’s mind in those final moments will be an intense point of argument for the trial. The parents’ lawyers will assert that he was pushed off course by an inexperienced actor who was instructed not to touch Bernecker while faking a shooting and a shove off the balcony. Instead, the parents allege, the actor made contact, throwing off the stunt and the trajectory of the fall.
“Negligence on the stunt is the heart of the case,” Susan Bernecker’s attorney, Jeffrey Harris of Harris Lowry Manton in Savannah and Atlanta, said in October. “At the end of the day, it’s going to be a straightforward question of whether the actor and the production company were negligent in the way they set up the stunt.”