Attorney For Family Of ‘Walking Dead’ Stuntman Suggests Damages Between $40 Million-$100 Million – Update

John Bernecker

UPDATE, 12:34 PM PT: Attorney Jeff Harris, representing the family of the stuntman killed on the set of The Walking Dead in 2017, said that the jury in a civil lawsuit against AMC Networks and other defendants should consider damages that total between $40 million and $100 million.

The stuntman, John Bernecker “was going to live 40 to 50 more years,” Harris said in the closing arguments. “What is a year of life worth? …It’s one to two million dollars per year. That is the way the law thinks you should calculate damages, and it is consistent with how we view life in our society.”

He also asked the jury to consider punitive damages.

Bernecker died two days after suffering massive head injuries while performing a stunt for the show, in which he was to fall head first over a rail balcony and into a crash pad. But he instead fell onto the hard surface.

As he wrapped up his closing statement, Harris also showed a video of Bernecker’s life, featuring shots of him with his family, doing backflips and doing kickboxing moves. The video, he said, reflects a “rich full life.” He also quoted a line from Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, “When you take away a man’s life, you take away everything he was and everything he was going to be.”

Harris also pushed back against the defense’s argument that AMC Networks was a bystander to the production, citing a handbook showing how much “micromanaging” they did over their production company.

The judge in the case was expected to take 20 minutes to read instructions, before the case heads to the jury.

UPDATE, 10:51 AM PT: The attorney for AMC Networks and other defendants said that stuntman John Bernecker’s death from injuries on the set of The Walking Dead was a “horrific” unforeseen accident, with no evidence that it was due to failure to follow safety protocols.

Attorney David Dial told jurors in a Georgia civil trial that they could ultimately decide that no one was at fault when Bernecker fell from a high balcony to a concrete floor. That is something that would save jurors from pinning the blame for the accident on the production, as Bernecker’s family alleges, or on Bernecker himself, as the defendants have suggested.

Bernecker died two days after suffering massive head injuries while performing a stunt as part of a fight scene for the show. He was to fall head first over the rail balcony and into a crash pad. But in his closing argument, Dial said that Bernecker instead continued to hold on to the rail with his left hand, something that was not part of the plans for the stunt. That ultimately changed the trajectory of his fall. Instead of dropping outward and away from the balcony, he fell underneath it.

The production, including other stunt coordinators, did not “foresee he was going to go under the balcony and missed the middle of the catcher pad by nine feet,” Dial told the jury.

Bernecker’s mother, Susan, sued AMC, production company Stalwart Film and other defendants in January, 2018.

Dial said that the family’s attorney, Jeff Harris, had not shown that the failure to follow some of the safety guidelines, like the presence of an on-set safety coordinator, was linked to Bernecker’s accident. Instead, he said that there was a team of people on and off the set to ensure safety, and that an outside consultant was contacted.

“If this was a slipshod operation that didn’t care about safety and had grown complacent, where are the other accidents?” Dial asked the jurors.

He pointed to Bernecker’s own record of being safety conscious, and that he “would not have knowingly, willingly put himself in harm’s way.”

Other stunt performers also had performed similar falls without pads place underneath a balcony.

“No one, no experienced stuntperson, had ever seen anything like this happen before,” he said.

He also tried to distance AMC Networks from the production company, Stalwart Film, describing their relationship as one of a homeowner and a contractor. He did so to warn jurors about the potential for bias against corporations, a common concern among defense attorneys in any trial.

Dial also pointed to language in the SAG-AFTRA basic agreement to make the case that Bernecker was an employee of the production, not an independent contractor. The form agreement covers stunt performers “employed by the day.” That’s important because employees generally fall under the state’s worker compensation laws.

PREVIOUSLY, 8:54 AM PT: Stuntman John Bernecker’s death from injuries on the set of The Walking Dead was “entirely preventable,” as the production failed to follow AMC’s own safety system, his family’s attorney said in the closing argument of a civil trial in Georgia.

Jeff Harris described what he characterized as a “slow train ride to the inevitable death of John Bernecker,” telling a jury that there was “just a failure to plan for anything other than complete success.” He called the production “complacent” when it came to on set safety.

In talking about potential damages, Harris also cited expert testimony that Bernecker would have made about $10 million over the course of his life. But he indicated that they would “come back and ask for damages for the full value of John’s life,” citing Bernecker’s potential for getting married and having a family.

Bernecker died in July 2017, two days after suffering massive head injuries from crashing from a high balcony to a concrete floor. He had been rehearsing a fight scene with Austin Amelio, then a series regular on the Georgia set of Season 8 of AMC’s flagship series and one of the defendants in the trial. A crash pad had been placed below him, but he missed it, striking his head on the ground.

Harris said that as Bernecker performed the stunt, he may have been “spooked” when Amelio touched him, perhaps with a prop gun. That caused Bernecker to grab hold of a rail, which was not planned, and altered the trajectory of his fall outside the catcher system. Amelio denied that he had any contact with Bernecker.

“There are a zillion different ways that this stunt could have been thrown off, but there just wasn’t any planning for it,” Harris said.

Harris replayed the video of the stunt, arguing that the production company failed “to use a couple hundred bucks of cardboard, and their defense is it’s his fault for not asking for more.”

Bernecker’s mother, Susan, sued AMC, production company Stalwart Film and other defendants in January, 2018.

Harris also argued that Bernecker was an independent contractor, and not an employee of the production company, pointing out that he was paid via 1099 and was set to work for other productions, like those of Marvel, after his Walking Dead work.

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.

David Dial, the attorney for the defendants, will deliver closing arguments later on Tuesday morning.

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