On Thursday, a jury awarded $8.6 million to the family of John Bernecker, a ‘Walking Dead’ stuntman who fell to his death on-set in July 2017.
According to Variety, jurors found AMC Networks’ subsidiary TWD 8 and the show’s production, Stalwart Films, liable in Bernecker’s death. Several individuals—including a unit production manager and first assistant director—were deemed partially responsible.
However, AMC itself won’t be held financially accountable or liable for any damages.
The decision was reached by a Gwinnett County, Georgia, jury. Before the trial’s end, jurors heard arguments for six days; they were also shown a frame-by-frame footage of Bernecker’s fatal accident.
On-set for the ‘Walking Dead’ in Senoia, Georgia, in 2017, Bernecker was asked to fall over a railing, where a safety pad was positioned some 21 feet below. However, Bernecker’s stunt went off-course when his left hand accidentally made contact with the railing after he’d already plunged over. The slight movement altered his course significantly and tragically—he swung towards a wall, missing the safety pad and hitting concrete head-first.
Bernecker was hospitalized in critical condition, dying after two days.
Variety suggests that the multi-million dollar settlement is something of a victory for Bernecker’s parents, Susan and Hagan Bernecker. Both accused AMC of playing loose and dangerous with on-set safety, allegedly violating many of its own policies.
An attorney for the Bernecker family lamented John’s loss, suggesting the stuntman’s death should teach production companies a lesson.
“John was a remarkably talented stunt professional who had an incredibly bright future in the film industry,” said Jeffrey Harris, an attorney for the family. “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 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.”
While AMC appeared apologetic in its own post-settlement statement, the company argued that Bernecker’s death was a single, isolated incident rather than the consequence of systematic safety failures.
“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,” AMC said. “The set of the ‘Walking Dead’ is safe and managed to meet or exceed all industry standards and guidelines related to stunts and stunt safety. 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 incident.”