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The mother of a stuntman who fell to his death on the set of “The Walking Dead” in Georgia has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the show’s network and other parties, saying unreasonably low budgets led to inadequate safety precautions.
John Bernecker, 33, died July 12 from injuries suffered in a fall on the set in Senoia, about 35 miles (56 kilometers) south of Atlanta.
The lawsuit filed Tuesday by Susan Bernecker in Gwinnett County State Court says AMC Networks Inc. “orchestrated and enforced a pattern of filming and producing ‘The Walking Dead’ cheaply and, ultimately, unsafely.” AMC pressured production company Stalwart Films to keep budgets and expenses unreasonably low, leading Stalwart to cut corners on safety measures, it says.
The lawsuit also names other companies associated with AMC and Stalwart Films, as well as the director and stunt coordinator for the episode that was being shot and an actor who was shooting a scene with Bernecker, among others.
AMC said Wednesday in an emailed statement, “We take the safety of our employees on all of our sets extremely seriously, and meet or exceed industry safety standards.” The company said its “thoughts and prayers” are with Bernecker, his family and everyone touched by the tragedy.
Susan Bernecker said in a news release that she hopes her son’s death will lead to improved safety standards for stunt performers in the film and television industry.
“My goal is to do everything I can to protect other stunt performers and to ensure their safety on the set in the future,” she said. “The industry is not doing enough to maintain basic safety guidelines for these performers. Worst of all, they’re scared to speak up.”
The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration earlier this month cited Stalwart Films in Bernecker’s fatal fall. The agency proposed a fine of $12,675, the maximum allowable fine for a single serious violation, for “failure to provide adequate protection from fall hazards.”
OSHA said the company could have used several methods to reduce the risk from stunts on high platforms.
In a statement after the citation was issued, Stalwart Films said it disagreed with the citation and called Bernecker’s fall “a tragic and terrible accident,” saying it meets or exceeds industry safety standards on its sets.
Upon receiving a citation, a company has 15 business days to either comply, request an informal conference with the agency’s area director or contest the findings before the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission. Stalwart Films has an informal conference scheduled for Thursday, OSHA spokesman Michael D’Aquino said in an email.
Matthew Goodwin, an assistant director who’s named in the lawsuit, told a responding officer that Bernecker was supposed to fall about 22 feet (7 meters) from a balcony over a railing onto “a pad made of a layer of 22-inch boxes, port-a-pit pads, and a large pad,” according to a report from the Coweta County Sheriff’s Office.
Austin Amelio, who’s also named in the lawsuit, was the only actor on the balcony with Bernecker at the time of the fall. He told the officer he asked Bernecker if he’d ever done a fall like that before. The stuntman said he’d done a few but never from that high up, and he “seemed a little nervous,” Amelio told the officer. On “The Walking Dead,” Amelio plays Dwight, a member of the villainous Saviors who later betrays the group.
Filming began after Bernecker gave a thumbs-up to signal he was ready, Goodwin said. Bernecker got most of the way over the railing and then appeared to try to stop the fall by grabbing the railing with both hands, but he hit the balcony, causing him to release his grip and spin upside down as he fell, the report said.
Bernecker landed a few inches from the pad, Goodwin told the officer.
The lawsuit asks for a jury trial and seeks punitive and compensatory damages, as well as attorney fees.
Susan Bernecker is represented by attorney Jeff Harris, who also represented the parents of film worker Sarah Jones, who was killed on a Georgia railroad trestle in 2014 during the shooting of a movie about singer Gregg Allman. CSX Transportation was ordered to pay $3.9 million in damages to Jones’ parents. CSX attorneys blamed filmmakers who were denied permission by CSX to shoot on its tracks. Film director Randall Miller served a year in jail for Jones’ death.
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