UPDATED with more details of lawsuit: More than six months after The Walking Dead stuntman John Bernecker was killed on the Atlanta set of the AMC blockbuster series, his mother has followed through on her promise to “seek justice” with a wrongful-death lawsuit that puts the blame on AMC for allegedly doing things on the cheap.
“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 filing asserts, repeatedly.
“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,” says the jury-seeking suit that lawyers for Susan Bernecker and her son’s estate filed late Tuesday in Georgia state court (read it here).
“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.”
“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,” AMC said in a statement to Deadline on Wednesday. “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.”
Earlier this month, OSHA fined TWD production company Stalwart Films $12,675 for “failing to protect employees from falling hazards,” but it provided no details from its investigation about the cause of the accident. The lawsuit, however, goes into considerable detail about how it allegedly occurred. Sources tell Deadline that the scene was filmed, but the lawsuit does not say whether attorneys for Bernecker’s mother have had access to the footage.
Filmed on July 12, 2017, the stunt required Bernecker to perform a stunt fall off of a 22-foot platform, transformed into a balcony for the scene, over a metal railing. According to the suit, actor Austin Amelio, who’s named as a defendant, was part of the scene and the only other person on the balcony with Bernecker when the scene was filmed. In the scene, Amelio’s character was to “shoot” Bernecker and “push” him over the railing and off of the balcony. “Amelio was instructed not to actually touch John during the stunt performance,” the suit states.
“To allow John to propel himself up and over the balcony’s makeshift railing, John used an ‘apple box’ – a wooden box or crate used in film production for various purposes, and is used in stunt performances to provide additional height or leverage.
“On the ground below,” the suit adds, “the only fall protection for the scene consisted of an area of padding made up of ‘port-a-pit’ pads on top of 22-inch cardboard boxes tied together by rope. No air bags were used, nor were any spotters in place. The padding did not fully extend under the balcony.”
The suit claims that the fall had not been rehearsed before filming and that although a medic was present on the set, “there was no ambulance or medical transport at the filming location, contrary to established industry standards.”
When it came time to shoot the scene, the suit alleges that “Amelio actually touched John, appearing to push John, yet pulling or grabbing the clothing at John’s back. As John ‘fell’ over the railing, his momentum was changed or inhibited, causing the trajectory of his fall to lead closer to and underneath the balcony. John was propelled to the ground under the balcony, where the ground was not padded or protected in any way.”
The suit says he “landed on his head or shoulder area” and suffered blunt force trauma and severe traumatic injuries as a result of the fall. “During and after John’s fall, he suffered conscious pain and suffering. There was no ambulance on site. It took over 30 minutes from the time of the fall before John was evacuated by helicopter for medical treatment. Ultimately, due to the delay in transport, it took roughly one hour after John’s fall before he was hospitalized for his injuries.”
Bernecker was declared dead on July 12 and removed from organ support on July 16.
The suit claims that Stalwart films allowed Amelio – an “untrained and inexperienced” actor – “to participate in a stunt fall rather than utilizing another stunt double performer to work with John.” It blames Stalwart for providing the apple box that was “insufficiently stabilized or equipped with grip material to allow John to gain the momentum necessary to propel him over the railing with the proper trajectory.”
Claiming that Stalwart “failed to properly and safely produce, direct, and perform the scene using reasonable, minimum safety precautions,” the suit accused Stalwart of “failing to provide an adequate area of padding that covered a sufficient area of ground, including the area below and underneath the balcony where John was standing” and “failing to utilize appropriate padding and construction, or preparation of a viable pad, for use in a stunt fall.”
It goes on to accuse the company of “failing to utilize spotters around the padding to assist in protecting John and correcting his trajectory, in keeping with industry standards; failing to pad or protect the ground area around the pads to provide for protection if John’s fall extended beyond the padding; failing to reduce the stunt fall distance for the scene when proper safety measures for the 22-foot fall could not be utilized; failing to use any sort of catch, restraint, or deceleration system to prevent John from contacting the ground, especially if the fall is not planned to be filmed; failing to secure the services of an independent safety specialist to assess the potential hazards and develop appropriate risk reduction strategies, and failing to provide and require the use of personal protective equipment that may have reduced the risk of injury to John.”
Other individuals named in the suit include Larry Teng, the episode’s director; Tom Luse, an executive producer and production manager; Jeffrey January, the first assistant director; Monty Simons, the episode’s stunt coordinator; and Matthew Goodwin, the show’s key second assistant director.
The suit claims that Teng “retained responsibility for ultimate decision-making when filming a scene, and was ultimately responsible for ensuring scenes were filmed safely and in compliance with applicable laws, regulations, and industry standards.”
According to the suit, Simons “was responsible for designing the action sequence and coordinating all the personnel and equipment needed to safely execute the action sequences.” The suit states that Luse was “responsible for managing the production” and “regulating the cost and budge” of the episode.
It says that January “was assigned primary responsibility for taking care of the health and safety of the crew, by, among other things, holding safety meetings, ensuring safety precautions are in place, arranging for appropriate medical personnel and facilities at filming locations, and reporting any unsafe conditions,” and that he “delegated or assigned a portion of the responsibilities related to the health and safety of the crew” to Goodwin.
It says that Luse was “responsible for managing the production” and “regulating the cost and budget” of the episode. And it claims that January “was assigned primary responsibility for taking care of the health and safety of the crew, by, among other things, holding safety meetings, ensuring safety precautions are in place, arranging for appropriate medical personnel and facilities at filming locations, and reporting any unsafe conditions,” and that he “delegated or assigned a portion of the responsibilities related to the health and safety of the crew” to Goodwin.
Naming AMC, Amelio and the various production entities connected with the Peach State-produced show, Bernecker is seeking a variety of unspecified damages in this civil action.
Erik Pedersen contributed to this report.