UPDATED with AMC & family lawyer statement: After two days of deliberations, the Georgia jury in the trial of the wrongful death of The Walking Dead stuntman John Bernecker returned with a verdict this afternoon.
AMC Networks were found “not to be negligent” in the death of the stuntman, said the juror foreperson in an unanimous decision just read out in court. However, the estate of Bernecker, as represented by his mother, was awarded $8.6 million in civil damages. There were no additional punitive damages.
Any appeal looks unlikely as the nearly $9 million the jury deemed in damages will be covered by insurance, a source close to the case told Deadline.
Adding a further twist to the verdict, the jury decided that Bernecker was in fact an independent contractor, not an employee of production company Stalwart Films, which seems to be the main focus of liability in the jury’s perspective Thursday.
Bernecker died two days after suffering massive head injuries while performing a stunt as part of a fight scene for Season 8 of the hit AMC series in July 2017. The seasoned stuntman was to fall head first over a rail balcony and into a crash pad for a scene on TWD. However, instead of dropping outward and away from the balcony, Bernecker tragically fell underneath it.
“John was a remarkably talented stunt professional who had an incredibly bright future in the film industry,” said plaintiff’s attorney Jeff Harris once the verdict was delivered. “My sincere hope is this verdict sends a clear message regarding the need to both elevate and strictly adhere to industry safety standards every day, on every shoot, on every film set. John’s tragic and preventable death happened as a result of a series of safety-related failures. Learning from these failures will go a long way in making sure that similar tragedies do not happen to another performer or another family.”
“There is no winning or losing in this situation, this was a terrible and tragic accident and our sympathies continue to go out to John Bernecker’s family and friends,” said AMC in a statement also after the verdict was announced. “The set of The Walking Dead is safe and is managed to meet or exceed all industry standards and guidelines related to stunts and stunt safety,” the company asserted in language very similar to past statements on the matter. “That has been the case across the production of 10 seasons and more than 150 episodes, and it continues to be the case today, notwithstanding this very sad and isolated accident.”
Before Judge Emily Brantley and the jury in the Gwinnett County courthouse the past week and a half, the civil suit was brought by Bernecker’s mother, Susan, on behalf of his estate last year. Seeking between $40 and $100 million in total damages, according the December 17 closing argument by lawyer Harris, the suit named AMC Networks, then-TWD regular Austin Amelio, Stalwart Films and a number of production crew as defendants. Now on spinoff Fear The Walking Dead and having testified in the trial, Amelio was found to have “zero” responsibility for Bernecker’s death.
Harris stated in court and in paperwork in the docket that the production failed to follow its safety policies, such as the presence of a safety coordinated on the set, and that it should have anticipated the possibility that Bernecker could have fallen outside the crash pad. Essentially, the plaintiff’s perspective is that Bernecker’s death was preventable and the result of negligence on the part of the production
As the cabler once again expressed regret for Berncker’s death, the attorney for AMC Networks and other defendants, David Dial, told the Georgia jurors that the accident could not have been predicted, citing other similar stunts that went off flawlessly and yet were set up the same way.
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. But as he fell, Bernecker continued to hold on to the rail with his left hand, something that was not part of the plans for the stunt, and that ultimately changed the trajectory of his fall.
“That purposeful action in hanging on is what took him away from the safety of the mat that he located,” Dial noted in his opening argument of December 10, placing the responsibility for the fatal accident on the stuntman himself.
The Wheeler, Hudgins, Gunn and Dial partner also made a point of telling the assembled jurors, as AMC has in past 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 have insisted. The distinction is important because if Stalwart had been recognized as the employer and not AMC, and Bernecker was not labeled an independent contractor by the jury, the case would have had to shift to the state’s worker compensation agencies.
As it is, today’s verdict on Bernecker’s independent contractor position settles that matter and the jurisdictional issues, at least for now.
Still, since the terrible accident and now through the legal process, the case once again put the issue of on-set safety in the spotlight, at least in the Peach State.
Harris also represented the family of Sarah Jones, the camera assistant who was killed on the set of Midnight Rider in 2014 when she was struck by debris as crew members struggled to get out of the way of an oncoming train. In 2017, a jury awarded Jones’ family $11.2 million in civil damages. The director of the movie, Randall Miller, served a year in jail after pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter.
Having had a good result today, the Bernecker trial is not the only TWD legal action AMC has been fighting. After over six years, former Walking Dead showrunner and CAA are set to take AMC to trial in June 2020 over $300 million in profits that the Shawshank Redemption director and the uber-agency say they were screwed out of by the defendants. In fact, TWD comic creator and series EP Robert Kirkman has a mini-trial of sorts coming up against AMC in February over over contract interpretations in the FearTWD co-creator’s own profit participation agreement with AMC.
Since Darabont’s initial suit of 2013, Kirkman was joined by EP Gale Anne Hurd and other TWD execs who also went after AMC in the summer of 2017 over money that they say the cabler screwed them out of too – a state of affairs that was in part unveiled thanks to the action of Darabont, who was fired from TWD between Seasons 1 and 2.
Earlier this week, as the Bernecker trial was going on, AMC filed a summary judgment motion against the $10 million suit Darabont and CAA hit the former home of Breaking Bad with in January 2018. Though a New York Supreme Court judge has long consolidated the 2013 and the 2018 cases, AMC’s Orin Snyder led lawyers are hoping for a Hail Mary or at least to gummy up the works after a long string of legal stumbles heading towards next summer’s big trial.