Lawyers with AMC argued that stuntman John Bernecker, who died after a fall at while filming “The Walking Dead” in Senoia, made the mistakes that led to his death this week as the trial begin in the wrongful death lawsuit filed by his mother.
Bernecker’s parents have sued AMC, as well as production company Stalwart Films and the director and stunt coordinator for the episode that was being filmed at the time of Bernecker’s fatal accident.
The suit claims that AMC Networks "orchestrated and enforced a pattern of filming and producing 'The Walking Dead' cheaply and, ultimately, unsafely."
According to the suit, AMC pressured Stalwart Films to keep budges and expenses unreasonably low, leading Stalwart to cut corners of safety measures.
Bernecker, 33, died in July of 2017 from a fall at Raleigh Studios Senoia, during the filming of Season 8 of “The Walking Dead." The studio was later purchased by AMC.
He was performing a stunt fall from a balcony 20 feet above the ground. The fall went wrong and instead of hitting padding, Bernecker landed headfirst on the concrete floor, missing the padding by inches.
The Occupational Health and Safety Administration investigated the incident and in January of 2018 cited Stalwart Films for falling to protect employees from fall hazards. The company was fined $12,675, the maximum allowable fine for a “serious violation."
“Unfortunately, the evidence will show that John Bernecker made a mistake,” AMC attorney David A. Dial said during his opening arguments, according to Deadline.com.
“For reasons that no one can explain, he grasped the rail and held on,” the defense lawyer told Judge Emily Brantley and the jury in a full Gwinnett County courthouse.
“That purposeful action in hanging on is what took him away from the safety of the mat that he located,” Dial said.
According to the call placed to Coweta 911 immediately after the fall, it appeared that Bernecker tried to stop his fall by grabbing onto the railing, but he slammed into the bottom of the balcony and lost his grip, then fell onto the concrete below.
AMC attorneys also argued that Bernecker was, in fact, an employee of Stalwart Films and not an independent contractor, according to Deadline.com. If Bernecker is an employee, state worker’s compensation laws will apply.
The attorney for Bernecker's mother said that the death could have been easily prevented, according to Deadline.com. “The catcher system was completely inadequate,” said Jeff Harris, who also represented the family of a woman killed during the filming of the Gregg Allman biography, “Midnight Rider."
"No stunt performer has died performing a fall in 17 years because there are specific safety policies and procedures in place,” Harris said. He told the jury that a “flaw” in the balcony set had been identified earlier in the season following a similar stunt but had never been adequately addressed.
The OSHA citation suggested several ways to reduce hazards, including a free fall catch system, shortening the fall distance, providing spotters with crash pads or other equipment, a system to prevent the performer hitting the ground or appropriate protective equipment.
“This tragedy should serve as a wake-up call for the entertainment industry,” OSHA Atlanta Regional Administrator Kurt Petermeyer said in a press release announcing the citation. “The entire industry needs to commit to safety practices for actors and stunt people involved in this type of work.”
After the OSHA report was made public, Susan Bernecker told Deadline.com that Hollywood covers up safety issues the same way it has covered up sexual harassment. She told the public that she had heard her son and his friends talking about unsafe conditions “all of the time,” and that she wants to do something about safety conditions in the industry.
“This should not have happened,” she told Deadline.com in January of 2018. “This was not the kind of stunt you should be killed on … so I’m going to try to change things.”
Deadline.com contributed to this story