GWINNETT COUNTY, Ga. — More than two years ago TV and film stuntman John Bernecker was supposed to perform a fall off a balcony for the hit show "The Walking Dead."
It was for Episode 7 of Season 8 of the show, "Time for After." He was to be "pushed" off the balcony by actor Austin Amelio, playing the character "Dwight."
The stunt went wrong, and the 33-year-old veteran of the industry fell more than 20 feet to exposed concrete below, suffering fatal injuries to his head. At the time, it was the first death for a stuntman in the U.S. in 17 years.
Next week, his family's lawsuit against AMC, which airs "The Walking Dead," and a number of individuals and production companies involved in the making of that episode, will go to civil trial in a Gwinnett County court.
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.
Bernecker's parents say he was pushed by Amelio during the filming of the scene, when the actor had strict instructions not to touch him as he performed the fall. AMC and Amelio say he didn't, and that witnesses will attest to this.
The defendants say Bernecker's last-second decision to grab and hold the railing as he was falling over it set the stunt on its fatal course. His parents say the production failed to properly deploy safety measures in a number of respects in the area where he could have fallen and, for instance, didn't have an ambulance on site.
A Gwinnett County jury will be tasked with pinpointing where the exact truth in all of this lies, and who, if anyone, lies at fault for the stunning accident.
Bernecker was an accomplished stuntman, with more than 90 credits on his resume over the course of a decade, including in recent blockbusters like "Black Panther" and "The Fate of the Furious."
On July 12, 2017, he was set to perform a fall of a balcony during the scene with Amelio, which recaps appear to indicate was never included in the episode.
A Gwinnett County state court pre-trial order obtained by 11Alive includes dueling descriptions from the parents and defendants about what exactly happened.
The parents, who filed suit in January 2018, list a litany of alleged failures that they say contributed to their son's death.
Those include the lack of an ambulance or medic present, insufficient padding or spotters on the ground, the absence of a restraint or deceleration system if he fell wrong, the absence of personal protective equipment for Bernecker and the involvement of Amelio in the stunt instead of another stunt double.
They also, notably, accuse AMC of putting pressure on production companies to film episodes cheaply, at the expense of safety. Their suit alleges the company used an "unreasonably low budget for stunt performances" because of "prioritizing profit over safety."
"The AMC Defendants orchestrated and enforced a pattern of filming and producing 'The Walking Dead' cheaply and, ultimately, unsafely," their suit states.
In January 2018, Stalwart Films, the production company for the episode, 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.
AMC and the associated parties say 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.
"Bernecker agreed that the safety measures to be used were sufficient and he agreed to perform the stunt," the defendants state in the court document. "After being hired, Bernecker never asked for additional safety measures to be implemented nor did he express any concerns about being able to safely complete the stunt."
Their outline further states that on the day of the fall, Bernecker rehearsed the stunt "several times" before the fall and "never expressed concern." The parents' suit says the fall was not rehearsed.
The defendants say he then asked to have a padded catching system moved to the left and out away from the balcony, and it was moved "to the exact location's of Bernecker's choosing."
"Bernecker then gave a thumbs up indicating he was ready to perform the stunt," the defendants say.
It then went wrong, they contend, when the stuntman "unexpectedly grabbed the top railing of the balcony" as the sequence began, "which was contrary to the instructions he had been given." They say he then held onto it, which "altered his trajectory and caused his body to swing underneath the balcony."
They said he then "made several more purposeful movements which caused him to miss the catcher system and land upside down" under the balcony.
At the time, the other actor in the scene, Amelio, told authorities Bernecker said he'd never done a fall from that high and seemed "a little nervous."
According to the Berneckers' lawsuit, it took 30 minutes from the time of his fall until he could be evacuated by a helicopter, with no ambulance on site, and it was an hour until he was hospitalized.
Jury selection in the trial begins on Monday, with testimony expected to begin on Tuesday.