Susan Bernecker’s son died on the set of TWD on July 12 after he fell head first more than six metres and hit the concrete below. An assistant director said that John, 33, attempted to grab a railing on his way down to break the fall, but missed. He died shortly afterwards at a medical centre in Atlanta, near where the show is shot.
Assistant director Matthew Goodwin told a responding officer that Bernecker was supposed to fall from a balcony over a railing onto “a pad made of a layer of 22-inch boxes, port-a-pit pads, and a large pad,” according to a report from the Coweta County Sheriff’s Office.
Austin Amelio, the only actor on the balcony with Bernecker at the time of the fall, told the officer he asked Bernecker if he’d ever done a fall like that before. The stuntman said he’d done a few but never from that high up, and he “seemed a little nervous,” Amelio told the officer.
Filming began after Bernecker gave a thumbs-up to signal he was ready, Goodwin said.
The report also says that Bernecker got most of the way over the railing and then appeared to try to stop the fall by grabbing the railing with both hands, but he hit the balcony instead, causing him to release his grip and spin upside down as he fell.
Bernecker landed a few inches from the pad and an on-set medic immediately responded and requested that 911 be called.
The stuntman was flown by helicopter to an Atlanta hospital.
The lawsuit, filed in Gwinnett County State Court, specifically names AMC along with several other parties involved in the show, including production company Stalwart Films, LLC, director Larry Teng, stunt co-ordinator Monty Simons and Amelio.
The lawsuit asks for a jury trial and seeks punitive and compensatory damages, as well as lawyer fees.
The lawsuit says AMC “orchestrated and enforced a pattern of filming and producing The Walking Dead cheaply and, ultimately, unsafely.”
It also claims that AMC pressured Stalwart Films to keep budgets unreasonably low, leading Stalwart to cut corners on safety precautions. In a statement, AMC said that it takes the safety of its employees very seriously.
“Our thoughts and prayers are and have been with John Bernecker, his family, friends and everyone touched by this tragic accident since the moment it occurred,” it read. “We take the safety of our employees on all of our sets extremely seriously, and meet or exceed industry safety standards. Out of respect for the family, we will have no further comment on this litigation.”
The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration earlier this month cited Stalwart Films in Bernecker’s fatal fall. The agency proposed a fine of $12,675, the maximum allowable fine for a single serious violation, for “failure to provide adequate protection from fall hazards.”
OSHA said the company could have used several methods to reduce the risk from stunts on high platforms.
In a statement after the citation was issued, Stalwart Films said it disagreed with the citation and called Bernecker’s fall “a tragic and terrible accident,” saying it meets or exceeds industry safety standards on its sets.
Susan is represented by lawyer Jeff Harris, who previously represented the parents of a woman who died in an on-set accident in 2014 (she was a crew member, not a stuntwoman). A jury eventually awarded US$11.2 million to the deceased woman’s family.
Harris stated in a statement that he plans to find justice for Susan, too.
“We plan to hold all responsible parties accountable for the tragic death of John Bernecker, a remarkably talented stunt performer and actor who had a bright future,” he said. “I’m confident that the truth about what transpired on the set of The Walking Dead on July 12, 2017, will finally be revealed.”
“My goal is to do everything I can to protect other stunt performers and to ensure their safety on the set in the future,” said Susan. “The industry is not doing enough to maintain basic safety guidelines for these performers. Worst of all, they’re scared to speak up.”
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Susan claims she has launched a foundation in her son’s memory to “create solutions for the safety of movie and television performers.”
John performed stunt work on numerous films over the past few years, including Marvel’s Black Panther, Rampage, The Fate of the Furious, Logan, The Hunger Games and Get Out.
According to Deadline, the accident is believed to be the first stunt-related death in the United States in 17 years.
TWD and AMC are currently facing another totally unrelated lawsuit regarding the show’s profits — series co-creator Frank Darabont says AMC robbed him by producing the series and then licensing it to its cable network affiliate at a rate well below the market rate.
— With files from Katie Scott and The Associated Press