Mom of “Walking Dead” stuntman vows action in his memory

Family photo

John Bernecker’s funeral was a blast.

A stuntman with a long list of credits, he was working on the Senoia set of “The Walking Dead” on July 12, 2017 when something went horribly wrong. He was airlifted to the hospital and a few days later, the family announced his organs had been donated.

In the days he was hospitalized, so many people came to visit that his mother, Susan Bernecker, decided to push the date of his memorial service to July 29. Held in his native New Orleans, the ceremony was preceded by a three-hour visitation. By the end of the night, people were dancing.

“We had about 1,000 people come,” said Bernecker, who knew her outgoing, fun-loving son would have wanted a lively gathering. “It turned out to be absolutely incredible and wonderful.”

PAST COVERAGE: “The Walking Dead” stars mourn John Bernecker

She has retained the law firm of Harris Lowry Manton, with offices in Atlanta and Savannah. It’s the firm that represented Richard and Elizabeth Jones after their daughter Sarah Jones, 27, was killed in a February 2014 film-set fatality. In July 2017, a Chatham County jury awarded $11.2 million in the Jones’ civil suit.

Last week the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced a $12,675 fine, the maximum allowed for a single incident. In its report OSHA cited the production company, Stalwart Films, for “failing to protect employees from fall hazards.”

IN-DEPTH: Injuries, deaths on Georgia film sets renew focus on industry safety

In a statement issued in response Stalwart called Bernecker’s death “a tragic and terrible accident. We take the safety of our employees extremely seriously on all of our sets and comply with – and frequently exceed – industry safety standards. We disagree with the issuance of this citation and are considering our response.”

Bernecker’s attorney, Jeff Harris, intends to bring legal action.

“We have been waiting for the OSHA investigation to conclude so that we can proceed with civil litigation,” he said. “We are hopeful that the John Bernecker case will elevate safety standards in the film and television industry so that stunt-related tragedies can be avoided in the future.”

Susan Bernecker said her son, 33, was meticulous about safety and had turned down jobs if he felt adequate precautions weren’t in place.

“My son was known for being a pro,” she said. All these months later, she says she doesn’t have a clear understanding of what happened.

“How can this happen to the guy who had everybody’s back? Did somebody have his back? I don’t know,” she said. “I’m so in the dark about this, which makes no sense. It should be pretty black and white.”

John Bernecker had experience performing the stunt, a fall from several stories up, she noted.

“He taught people how to do this,” she said. “I’m not getting the answers I want from anybody. Everybody’s just too quiet.”

She said is pursuing answers and lending her voice to the cause of set safety in his honor.

“My son would want me to do this, I know it,” she said. “He was so worried about safety all the time. He would say ‘Mom, you gotta find out what happened.’”

Before he died, John Bernecker had become in interested in acting and was looking ahead. He was already talking about building a home he could retire to some day. He’d been so busy working on locally produced films, including the upcoming Marvel movie “Black Panther,” that his jobs were overlapping. The last time he talked to his mom, he had a little free time coming up and he wanted them to spend it together.

“The last thing he said to me on the phone was, ‘Mom I want you to come to Atlanta this weekend. I don’t think I have to work.’”

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