‘Walking Dead’ stuntman John Bernecker: Jury awards $8.6M to estate in damages

A jury has reached a verdict in the wrongful death lawsuit regarding John Bernecker, a stuntman who died on the set of the AMC series the “The Walking Dead.”

On Thursday, a jury in Gwinnett County, Georgia, unanimously awarded Bernecker’s estate $8.6 million in damages.

The jury found Stalwart Films and TWD Productions VIII negligent in the death of Bernecker. Though both companies are subsidiaries of AMC Networks, the jury did not find the network negligent.

None of the companies will owe punitive damages.

Others found negligent include the show’s unit production manager Tom Luse, first assistant director Jeff January and stunt coordinator Monty Simons. 

The jury also found Bernecker to be an independent contractor, rather than an employee of Stalwart Films, a distinction that allowed his parents to recover civil damages.

Danai Gurira flashes a powerful glance in a scene from "The Walking Dead." (Photo: GENE PAGE/AMC)

In a statement to USA TODAY, attorney Jeff Harris, who represented Bernecker’s mother Susan in the civil suit, described the late stuntman as “a remarkably talented stunt professional who had an incredibly bright future in the film industry.”

“My sincere hope is this verdict sends a clear message regarding the need to both elevate and strictly adhere to industry safety standards every day, on every shoot, on every film set,” Harris continued. “John’s tragic and preventable death happened as a result of a series of safety-related failures. Learning from these failures will go a long way in making sure that similar tragedies do not happen to another performer or another family.”

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The 33-year-old died from injuries suffered on the Georgia set of the hit AMC zombie show when he fell headfirst from a balcony 22 feet high and landed on concrete instead of air-bag crash pads, on July 12, 2017. He died two days later.

His mother sued AMC, Stalwart Films, the producer and a long list of other defendants, including actor Austin Amelio, who was the only other person on the balcony at the time of Bernecker’s fall. In her lawsuit, filed in January 2018, she alleged AMC “orchestrated and enforced a pattern of filming and producing ‘The Walking Dead’ cheaply and, ultimately, unsafely.”

The jury exonerated Amelio, finding that he bore no responsibility for Bernecker’s death.

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AMC Networks expressed sympathy for Bernecker’s loved ones in a statement to USA TODAY Thursday.

“There is no winning or losing in this situation, this was a terrible and tragic accident and our sympathies continue to go out to John Bernecker’s family and friends,” the network said. “The set of ‘The Walking Dead’ is safe and is managed to meet or exceed all industry standards and guidelines related to stunts and stunt safety. That has been the case across the production of 10 seasons and more than 150 episodes, and it continues to be the case today, notwithstanding this very sad and isolated accident.”

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The Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued a “serious citation” to production company Stalwart Films after investigating the incident, according to a statement released in January.

OSHA proposed penalties totaling the “maximum allowable” fine of $12,675 for the company’s “failure to provide adequate protection from fall hazards.”

“This tragedy should serve as a wake-up call for the entertainment industry,” Kurt Petermeyer, OSHA Atlanta regional administrator, said in the statement. “The entire industry needs to commit to safety practices for actors and stunt people involved in this type of work.”

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Contributing: Maria Puente

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