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SYFY WIRE The Walking Dead

Jury awards $8.6 million to mother of Walking Dead stuntman who died following on-set fall

By Benjamin Bullard
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The mother of stunt actor John Bernecker, who died in a 2017 on-set accident while rehearsing a scene for The Walking Dead, has reportedly been awarded $8.6 million in a wrongful death verdict. The civil jury found negligence on the part of AMC’s affiliated companies — but found AMC network itself, the parent company, not liable for the damages. 

Variety reports that a jury in Georgia (where AMC films the series) found AMC Networks’ entity, TWC 8, along with Stalwart Films, the show’s production company, to have been negligent in providing sufficient “checks and balances that should have been in place to prevent this tragedy from happening,” according to attorney Jeffrey Harris, who argued the lawsuit on behalf of the Bernecker’s mother.

Jurors reportedly were shown “frame-by-frame video” of the accident, in which the 33-year-old stuntman sustained fatal injuries after falling more than 20 feet from a balcony and hitting his head on the concrete floor on The Walking Dead set in Senoia, Georgia. Bernecker was placed on life support, but was pronounced brain dead while on a ventilator at Atlanta Medical Center, where he passed away two days after the accident.

Bernecker and another actor had reportedly been rehearsing a fight scene for an episode from the show’s 8th season, with Bernecker’s planned fall from the balcony intended to land his body on a thick safety pad. But “as he flipped over” the railing, reports Variety, he “unexpectedly grabbed onto the railing with his left hand,” changing the trajectory of his fall by a reported nine feet, and resulting instead in a direct impact on the hard floor. 

The accident led to a temporary production shutdown on the show, as well as a $12,675 fine against Stalwart Films, which the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) handed down in January of 2018. The penalty represented the maximum allowable amount from the federal workplace safety watchdog, “for the company’s failure to provide adequate protection from fall hazards,” according to a statement from the agency at the time of the ruling.

Attorney Harris successfully persuaded the jury that AMC’s affiliated companies could have done more to mitigate the harm Bernecker sustained by falling outside his designated landing area. “Harris questioned the stunt coordinator, Monty Simons, about why there was no padding closer to the wall,” reports Variety, adding that Simons said in testimony that nothing in his professional experience led him to anticipate that Bernecker was at risk of a mishap that could displace his landing spot so far from the safety pad.

In addition to his work on The Walking Dead, Bernecker also had more than 90 previous stunt credits beginning with Anytown back in 2009, in addition to genre movie hits like Logan, The Hunger Games, and Black Panther. He also had accumulated 13 acting credits, including roles in Goosebumps, American Ultra, and True Detective.