Susan Bernecker, whose son John Bernecker died after an accident on the set of “The Walking Dead” in July 2017, has filed a wrongful death lawsuit. She is represented by Jeff Harris, who successfully sued following the 2014 set death of “Midnight Rider” crew member Sarah Jones. A Chatham County jury awarded $11.2 million in the Jones case.
AMC has released this statement in response to the filing:
“Our thoughts and prayers are and have been with John Bernecker, his family, friends and everyone touched by this tragic accident since the moment it occurred. We take the safety of our employees on all of our sets extremely seriously, and meet or exceed industry safety standards. Out of respect for the family, we will have no further comment on this litigation.”
Here are allegations set forth in the Bernecker suit:
“The production of Season 8 of ‘The Walking Dead,’ like seasons before it, had an emphasis on keeping production budgets low and profits high. Specifically, AMC Parent, AMC Network and AMC Holdings, through production company TWD III (collectively referred to herein as ‘The AMC Defendants’), put pressure on the production services company, Stalwart Films, the produce episodes of ‘The Walking Dead’ as cheaply as possible.
“The AMC Defendants orchestrated and enforced a pattern of filming and producing ‘The Walking Dead’ cheaply and, ultimately, unsafely.
“As part of this emphasis, the AMC Defendants pressured Stalwart Films to maintain unreasonably low budgets and expenses for episodes, including the budget allotted to stunts. Accordingly, the production of ‘The Walking Dead’ repeatedly cut corners on safety precautions, including as it pertained to stunt performances.
“Due to pressure from AMC Defendants and their emphasis on prioritizing profit over safety, Stalwart Films allocated an unreasonably low budget for stunt performances for Season 8 of ‘The Walking Dead’ and Episode 807.
“Defendant (Monty) Simons, as stunt coordinator for Episode 807, was responsible for designing the action sequence and coordinating all the personnel and equipment needed to safely execute the action sequences. As stunt coordinator, Simons casts the stunt personnel, and supervises and oversees stunt and principal performers during stunt performances to ensure that the performances are done safely and in a manner consistent with industry practices and standards. As stunt coordinator, Simons was also responsible for working with the First Assistant Director to hold safety meetings before every action sequence. Simons’ services as stunt coordinator were provided and contracted to Stalwart Films through his loan-out corporation, Defendant Monster Action.
“On July 12, 2017, as part of the filming of Episode 801, ‘The Walking Dead’ production planned to film a stunt that required John to perform a stunt fall off of a 22-foot platform, transformed into a ‘balcony’ for the scene, over a makeshift railing. The bars of the railing were partially covered on the outside by a piece of sheet metal.
“Defendant (Austin) Amelio, an actor and not a trained stunt performer, was part of the scene and the only other individual on the balcony with John when the subject scene was filmed.
“In the subject scene, Amelio’s character, Dwight, was to ‘shoot’ John, and ‘push’ him over the railing and off the balcony. Amelio was instructed not to actually touch John during the stunt performance.
“To allow John to propel himself up and over the balcony’s makeshift railing, John used an ‘apple box.’ An apple box is a wooden box or crate used in film productions for various purposes, and is used in stunt performances to provide additional height or leverage.
“On the ground below, the only fall protection for the scene consisted of an area of padding made up of a ‘port-a-pit’ pads on top of 22-inch cardboard boxes tied together by rope. No air bags were used, nor were any spotters in place. The padding did not fully extend under the balcony.
“Before filming, the fall was never rehearsed. While a medic was present at the filming location, there was no ambulance or medical transport at the filming location, contrary to industry standards.
“During the performance of the scene, on information and belief, Defendant Amelio actually touched John, appearing to push John, yet pulling or grabbing the clothing at John’s back. As John ‘fell’ over the railing, his momentum was changed or inhibited, causing the trajectory of his fall to lead closer to and underneath the balcony. John was propelled to the ground under the balcony, where the ground was not padded or protected in any way. On information and belief, John landed on his head or shoulder area. John suffered blunt force trauma and severe traumatic injuries as a result of the fall. During and after John’s fall, he suffered conscious pain and suffering.
“After John’s fall, there was no ambulance on site. It took over 30 minutes from the time of the fall before John was evacuated by helicopter for medical treatment. Ultimately, due to the delay in transport, it took roughly one hour after John’s fall before he was hospitalized for his injuries.
“John was declared dead on July 12, 2017, and removed from organ support on July 16, 2017.
“The Stalwart Film Defendants failed to properly and safely produce, direct and perform the subject scene using unreasonable, minimum safety precautions. Among other things, the Stalwart Film Defendants failed to properly prepare for the subject scene and the accompanying fall hazard in the following ways:
a. Failing to provide an adequate area of padding that covered a sufficient area of ground, including the area below and underneath the balcony where John was standing
b. Failing to utilize appropriate padding and construction, or preparation of a viable pad, for use in a stunt fall
c. Failing to utilize spotters around the padding to assist in protecting John and correcting his trajectory, in keeping with industry standards
d. Failing to pad or protect the ground area around the pads to provide for protection if John’s fall extended beyond the padding
e. Failing to reduce the stunt fall distance for the scene when proper safety measures for the 22-foot call could not be utilized
f. Failing to use any sort of catch, restraint or deceleration system to prevent John from contacting the ground, especially if the fall is not planned to be filmed
g. Failing to secure the services of an independent safety specialist to assess the potential hazards and develop appropriate risk reduction strategies
h. Failing to provide and require the use of personal protective equipment that may have reduced the risk of injury to John
i. Allowing an actor untrained and inexperienced in the performance of stunts, Defendant Amelio, to participate in a stunt fall, rather than utilizing another stunt double performer to work with John, who was also performing as a stunt double
j. Providing an ‘apple box’ that was insufficiently stabilized or equipped with grip material to allow John to gain the momentum necessary to propel him over the railing with the proper trajectory
k. Equipping the outside of the balcony railing with sheet metal, restricting John’s mobility and movement over the railing
l. Failing to have an ambulance on site at the filming location, in keeping with industry standards and
m. Failing to account for the time for medical transport when filming in a remote location.
The lawsuit noted OSHA’s recent report fining the maximum penalty.
“The Stalwart Film Defendants’ numerous failures to take reasonable safety precautions were the direct result of the policies, pressure and decisions from the AMC Defendants to produce ‘The Walking Dead’ for minimum cost and maximum profit.”