ATLANTA — Closing arguments took place Tuesday afternoon in the trial where a stuntman's family sued the network that airs "The Walking Dead" television show.
John Bernecker died in 2017 while working on the show.
The suit, brought by his parents Susan and Hagen Bernecker, alleges the production failed in numerous ways that exacerbated the circumstances of the ill-fated stunt. AMC and the other parties named in the suit argue it was a well-rehearsed stunt done twice successfully under the same circumstances in the previous months. The defendants said Bernecker's last-second decision to grab and hold the railing as he was falling over it set the stunt on its fatal course.
In closing arguments, attorney Jeff Harris, who is representing Bernecker’s family, said that damages from the accident total some $40 million.
“Ultimately, this case is about damages," Harris said. "It's about the fact that this company was negligent. They caused a man’s death, and you’re going to be charged by the court about what the law is."
Harris argued that Bernecker would have lived another 40 to 45 years and earned about $10 million over the course of his life.He asked that the jury award other damages based on "non-economic damages".
"The economic damages are just a small part of the total loss of someone," Harris said. "What matters is the non-economic damages. The fact that he was close to his mother. He was rebuilding his relationship and getting close to his father again. There was so much ahead. There was the future and getting married, children – he had his whole life ahead of him. That’s what damages allow for under Georgia Law."
The stuntman family's attorney argued that AMC was supervising Stalwart Films, the production company behind the show, and "intimately involved in the production" and should be liable for damages.
Much of the arguments was surrounding the status of Bernecker's employment at the time of the accident. AMC and Stallworth say he was not an employee and was considered and independent contractor.
Harris played a video montage of photos of Bernecker from childhood to adulthood before closing out his argument.
AMC and the associated parties said that the stuntman visited the filming location two days before the fall and discussed the stunt's choreography with Monty Simons, the stunt coordinator for the episode.
During the closing arguments, Attorney David Dial, who is representing AMC, said the evidence shown is case that does not involve his clients “acting unreasonably”. He later went on to call the case “tragic, horrific, accident”.
Dial later went into witness testimonies, that included three other stunt professionals working on set the day of Bennecker’s fatal accident. Simons, Keith Davis, and Kent Demand were all listed.
The Atlanta and Las Vegas based attorney first argued that there was safety management in place and there were no similar accidents on set prior to July 12, 2017.
“Everyone that has testified for you said, 'I never would have expected to end up under the balcony,'" Dial said. "But that’s what they knew at the time. That’s what they planned for. Nobody came in here and gave you a single example of someone that went over the rail and under the balcony at 9 feet for from their target spot. It was not reasonably foreseeable that was going to happen."
A Gwinnett County jury will decide who's at fault.
In January 2018, Stalwart Films was fined $12,675 for a "failure to provide adequate protection from fall hazards" by the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
OSHA said Stalwart exposed employees to fall hazards while performing stunts from an elevated platform. Among the measures OSHA said Stalwart should have implemented were reducing stunt fall distances to minimum required levels; using a freefall catching system; providing “an adequate number of spotters” with crash pads; and employing an independent safety specialist.
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