By Vanessa Papas: The death of a stuntman on the zombie apocalypse series, Walking Dead, has headed to court. John Bernecker fell almost seven metres to his death while rehearsing a fight scene for the show’s eighth season in July 2017. What makes the case so bizarre is that there was an airbag to cushion the blow but Bernecker missed it by mere inches.
In a moment cast members will never forget, Bernecker tragically crashed into a concrete floor. He died in two days later in hospital when a ventilator was turned off. He was surrounded by family and friends, including his girlfriend.
For the last two years, his parents, Susan and Hagen Bernecker have been fighting for justice for their son. The couple’s attorney claims the production team was “complacent” in terms of safety, and that there was “just a failure to plan for anything other than complete success” on the set. The production house has denied responsibility, saying that Bernecker’s death was an “unforeseeable accident” caused by his own negligence.
The plan on the day of the tragedy was simple. Bernecker, 33, was to fall head first over a rail balcony and into a crash pad. But for some reason, instead of following the script, the stuntman continued to hold on to the rail with his left hand, something that was not part of the plans. By gripping the railing he ultimately changed the trajectory of his fall. Instead of dropping outward and away from the balcony, he fell directly underneath it, literally missing the air bag by a cat’s whisker. The family’s lawyer says Bernecker may have been spooked after actor Austin Amelio touched him, causing him to grab hold of a rail.
Before his death, experienced Bernecker had worked on over 90 films and television series, including Jonah Hex, Green Lantern, The Hunger Games film series, Logan and The Fate of the Furious. He posthumously appeared in numerous films, such as Black Panther and Game Night. Bernecker joins the list of stunt performers who have died on set after things went horribly awry, including Jose Marco, who was mauled to death by a shark, which had been improperly sedated, while filming an underwater sequence in the film Shark and Joi Harris who was killed on the set of Deadpool 2 while doubling as Zazie Beetz’ Domino during a motorcycle scene in the film.
“Generally, stunt work is safer now that it was 20 years ago, and I anticipate it being safer 20 years from now than it was today. But it’s still a dangerous business,” explains veteran stuntman Conrad Palmisano. “The nature of stunts is inherently dangerous, and we work very hard to create stunts in the safest possible manner. However, it’s still dangerous and things can go wrong. It’s never one thing. Usually the planets have to align in all the wrong ways for something tragically to go wrong. When we as a stunt community examine what happened, we look to fix the problem, not to affix the blame.”