The family and estate for late The Walking Dead stuntman John Bernecker have filed a wrongful death lawsuit against AMC, more than six months after Bernecker was killed while filming the eighth season of the hit series. Susan Bernecker — John's mother — and his estate filed a civil suit late Tuesday in Georgia state court seeking a variety of unspecified damages. The suit not only names AMC but also actor Austin Amelio (Dwight) and a number of production companies associated with the series.
Here are some of the highlights from the lawsuit, which you can read in its entirety here:
"The production of Season 8 of The Walking Dead, like seasons before it, had an emphasis on keeping production budgets low and profits high."
"The Stewart Film defendants' numerous failures to take reasonable safety precautions were the direct result of the policies, pressure, and decisions from the AMC Defendants to produce The Walking Dead for minimum cost and maximum profit."
"As the ultimate decision-makers for The Walking Dead production, the AMC Defendants are each independently responsible for the failure of The Walking Dead production to take reasonable safety precautions to protect its performer, John Bernecker. Each of the Defendants had knowledge, actual or constructive, that the film of Season 8 of The Walking Dead, include Episode 807, was not being performed in a safe manner in accordance with industry standards."
For its part, AMC responded to the civil suit in a statement released to Deadline Hollywood:
"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. 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."
Following up on the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issuing a serious citation with the maximum fine amount allowed to The Walking Dead producer Stalwart Films on January 6th, Bernecker's mother said that she intended to "seek justice for John and to ensure that no other parent with a child working in the film and television industry suffers this kind of heartbreak."
"There are no words to describe the loss of my son, John, who was a highly professional, veteran stuntman with a remarkable passion for life. He was very respected and loved in the film industry. This tragedy has changed our family forever and has left us with many questions that deserve answers." – Susan Bernecker
Jeff R. Harris serves as legal counsel for Bernecker and represented the parents of Sarah Jones, the camera assistant killed on the set of Midnight Rider in 2014.
"We have been waiting for the OSHA investigation to conclude so that we can proceed with civil litigation. We are hopeful that the John Bernecker case will elevate safety standards in the film and television industry so that stunt-related tragedies can be avoided in the future." – Jeff R. Harris
OSHA hit Stalwart Films with the maximum fine allowable by law under the citation issued. In OSHA's official statement regarding the fine that was released, Stalwart Films was called out for "failing to protect employees from fall hazards while filming the television show, The Walking Dead."
OSHA's statement continued:
"OSHA issued a serious citation and proposed penalties totaling the maximum allowable fine of $12,675, for the company's failure to provide adequate protection from fall hazards. OSHA investigated Stalwart's filming location in Senoia after a stuntman was fatally injured after falling more than 20 feet."
In a statement, Stalwart Films acknowledged the tragedy behind the accident that took Bernecker's life, but disagreed with OSHA's decision and implied that this may not be the end of the matter:
"This was a tragic and terrible accident. We take the safety of our employees extremely seriously on all of our sets and comply with – and frequently exceed – industry safety standards. We disagree with the issuance of this citation and are considering our response."
As background, the vast majority of citations issued by OSHA violation citations are classified as "serious," with more severe citation categories including "repeat" and "willful" violations that would result in heavier fines.
"This tragedy should serve as a wake-up call for the entertainment industry. The entire industry needs to commit to safety practices for actors and stunt people involved in this type of work." – Kurt Petermeyer, OSHA Atlanta Regional Administrator
In July 2017, Bernecker was filming a stunt for The Walking Dead's eighth season that required him to fall approximately 22 feet off of a balcony and onto a safety cushion that was set below. Assistant director Matthew Goodwin stated that Bernecker did not achieve "good separation" from the balcony, resulting in severe injuries that the Coweta County Sheriff's Office reports were caused by the stuntman landing on his head and neck on the concrete next to the safety cushion. Immediate aid was rendered, and Bernecker was airlifted to an Atlanta medical center where he was place on a ventilator. His family asked that the ventilator be turned off the following day.
Production on The Walking Dead was suspended briefly, and a number of cast and crew took to social media to express their heartbreak and condolences. Showrunner Scott M. Gimple and executive producers Gale Anne Hurd, Robert Kirkman, Dave Alpert, and Greg Nicotero cancelled their panel at the Television Critics Association (TCA) press event to attend Bernecker's funeral.