Former The Walking Dead co-star Austin Amelio was on the small balcony filming a TWD Season 8 scene with stuntman John Bernecker in 2017 when Bernecker fell over, missing the protective pads underneath by two feet and landing on the concrete head-first. He died two days later from the severe head injuries.
“I saw the whole thing, I was in complete and utter shock,” Amelio told the jury Friday in emotional testimony at the wrongful death trial of The Walking Dead stuntman. “It was the worst day of my life.”
During the opening week of the trial in Gwinnett County, GA, attorneys for the plaintiff, Bernecker’s mom Susan, tried to convince the jury Bernecker’s death was preventable and the result of negligence on the part of the production. AMC’s legal team argued Bernecker’s death stemmed from human error on the stuntman’s part, saying he grasped the rail and held on during his flip off the balcony, which changed his anticipated trajectory.
That grasping movement became a focal point in the line of questioning among multiple witnesses. It was revealed that holding the railing was not in the episode’s script, nor in any rehearsals — the character Bernecker doubled for had just been killed, with his lifeless body supposed to fall over the balcony. The fact Bernecker went off script raised questions about whether Amelio — whose character, Dwight, kills the minor character for whom Bernecker was a double — touched Bernecker during the scene, which could explain the stuntman’s instinctive reaction to grab the railing.
“Absolutely not,” Amelio said Friday when asked whether he or the butt of the prop gun he was holding had touched Bernecker in the moments before Bernecker jumped.
Earlier in the testimony, Amelio, who now co-stars as Dwight on TWD offshoot series Fear the Walking Dead, recalled the safety meeting on set earlier that day, in which TWD stunt coordinator Monty Simons instructed him not to touch Bernecker and to stand behind him. “The only thing I remember is, ‘Do not touch him,'” Amelio said of the meeting.
Griffin Freeman, a local Atlanta actor, played the villain killed by Dwight for whom Bernecker was a stunt double. He supported Amelio’s claim that there was no touching in his testimony on Thursday. After filming his part and being switched with Bernecker, Freeman remained close by and filmed the tragic stunt with his phone. He testified the video of the scene shows clearly Bernecker starting to move after Amelio’s arm had already cleared his body, and not a continuous motion that would be consistent with touching.
Amelio also confirmed that the director of the episode asked an apple box on which Bernecker was standing to be moved so it does not appear in the shot. Bernecker had agreed to that with no objections, asking in turn for the mat underneath to be shifted, which was done.
The actor praised Simons’ work on the show. “I think Monty is an excellent stunt coordinator,” he said.
Simons, other members of the TWD stunt team as well as a co-executive producer and assistant director also took the stand this week, all arguing that Bernecker’s rail grab could not have been foreseen, that the scene was not rushed, and all possible safety precautions had been taken.
Experts for the Bernecker’s family countered that his death was preventable, that the catcher system used in the stunt was inadequate, and the area just off the mat where Bernecker hit the ground should’ve been secured with proper padding. Stunt professionals and friends of Bernecker testified he was great at his job and should not be blamed for the incident. Bernecker’s parents also took the stand, speaking fondly of their son, his childhood, his hobbies and his passion for his job.
The plaintiff laid their case first. Amelio was part of the defense’s witnesses, with more slated for Monday. Closing arguments are expected to take place Tuesday or Wednesday next week.