John Bernecker, a 33-year old veteran stuntman, was fatally injured after falling from a balcony during the filming of “The Walking Dead”, on a set located about 30 miles outside of Atlanta. His mother, Susan Bernecker, has since filed a civil claim for wrongful death in the Gwinnett County State Court. The claim states that the producer of the show, AMC Networks, the director, and stunt manager, demonstrated a pattern of producing the show in an inexpensive and dangerous manner. The claim alleges that Stalwart Films, under pressure from AMC, compromised safety measures in efforts to reduce costs.
Production of the show’s eighth season was temporarily suspended after the incident for an investigation. An AMC spokesperson expressed their condolences and said that they take safety very seriously and strive to “meet or exceed” industry standards. Bernecker had worked as a stuntman for approximately 10 years and was often responsible for the safe preparation and design of stunts. The lawsuit seeks compensatory and punitive damages for negligence in addition to reimbursement for legal fees. Bernecker explained that she hopes that the death of her son will lead to improvements relating to safety in the industry. She feels that show producers are not truly doing enough to protect the safety of the performers.
Stalwart Films was formally cited by The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and received a fine of $12,675 for some safety violations related to poor “protection from fall hazards.” OSHA explained that there were various additional safety measures that could have been implemented on the set prior to executing the stunt. Stalwart issued a statement calling the accident “tragic and terrible”; however, they did say that they disagree with the decision by OSHA to issue a citation.
Bernecker had safely completed approximately 93 stunts over the course of his career. Stunt performers are generally assigned responsibility for reviewing the safety of the stunt on-site and then making changes accordingly. There are written agreements in place between the studio and the union according to SAG-AFTRA, which contain many provisions that appear to be rather vague. The terms included one rule that says “reasonable requests” for additional safety measures and equipment associated with the stunts will be honored by the show’s production management team.
Austin Amelio, who plays Dwight on the show, was present with Bernecker up on the balcony platform just prior to the fall. Amelio suggested that Bernecker was somewhat nervous about performing the stunt due to the height of the balcony. After signaling to begin filming the scene, Bernecker was climbing over the railing and then appeared to try to stop the fall, when he suddenly hit the balcony and lost his grip–landing just inches away from a pad designed to break the falls.