“Unfortunately, the evidence will show that John Bernecker made a mistake,” AMC attorney David A. Dial said Tuesday in opening arguments for the wrongful death trial of The Walking Dead stuntman, who died more than two years ago after falling more than 20 feet on the Georgia set of the zombie apocalypse series.
“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 this morning. “That purposeful action in hanging on is what took him away from the safety of the mat that he located,” Dial added, placing the blame for the fatal accident and expressing what looks already to be a key component of the cabler’s defense against the claims of Susan Bernecker and her son’s estate.
In what may be another pivotal part of the process, the Wheeler, Hudgins, Gunn and Dial partner made a point of emphasizing, as AMC has in filings in the case, that Bernecker was an employee of TWD production company Stalwart Film and not an independent contractor, as the plaintiffs and their lawyer Jeff Harris argued today.
That’s a big one here. Under Georgia law, if Stalwart is recognized as the employer and not AMC, and Bernecker is not labeled an independent contractor, the case becomes a matter for the state’s worker compensation agencies.
Bernecker died in July 2017, two days after suffering massive head injuries from crashing from a high balcony to a concrete floor while rehearsing a fight scene with then-TWD regular Austin Amelio on the Georgia set of Season 8 of AMC’s flagship series. An airbag had been placed below him, but he missed it, striking his head on the ground.
With the state court trial expected to last just over a week, the wrongful-death awsuit that led to today was filed in January 2018 after Bernecker’s mother promised to “seek justice.” The grieving family blamed 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 asserted in naming AMC, Stalwart Films, TWD Productions VIII and various crew and stunt team members as defendants.
AMC attempted to have the case dismissed but had its summary judgment motion rejected by Brantley in October, setting the stage for trial.
“John Berneckers’s death could have easily been prevented,” plaintiff’s main lawyer Jeff Harris asserted to the court on Day 1 of the trial in his opening statement. “The catcher system was completely inadequate,” noted the attorney, who successfully represented Sarah Jones’ family in its case over the camera assistant’s death on the Midnight Rider set in 2014.
“No stunt performer has died performing a fall in 17 years because there are specific safety policies and procedures in place,” Harris said. In fact, as he has before, the Savannah-based lawyer strongly gave prominence to the contention that not only did AMC neglect its own safety policies during the “How It’s Gotta Be” episode, but also a production safety rep was not on set as the company’s own procedures demand.
Additionally, Harris told the judge and jury that the “flaw” in the balcony set was revealed earlier in the season during a similar stunt, but never adequately addressed or fixed.
“This was a tragic accident, and our deepest sympathies continue to go out to John Bernecker’s family and friends,” AMC corporate told Deadline in a statement Tuesday after the opening arguments had concluded. “Across 10 seasons and more than 150 episodes, the set of The Walking Dead is safe, and is regularly evaluated to ensure that it adheres to all industry standards and guidelines related to stunts and stunt safety, notwithstanding this very sad and isolated accident.”
After a break following the opening arguments, the trial continues today with the first set of witnesses being called.