The question of whether a stuntman who died on the set of AMC Networks’ hit series The Walking Dead was an employee or an independent contractor is at the heart of a lawsuit in the Third Division of the Georgia Court of Appeals.
The TV network is asking the court to overturn an $8.6 million jury verdict in the death of stuntman John Bernecker. On July 12, 2017, Bernecker was performing a stunt on the set of The Walking Dead. During rehearsal, he fell 20 feet onto a concrete floor, missing a safety cushion by several feet. He suffered a severe head injury and died the next day at the Atlanta Medical Center. Production temporarily shut down for the TV show.
In December 2019, a jury found AMC and its production company, Stalwart Films, liable for his death and responsible to pay his family $8.6 million.
The defendants appealed the verdict to the Georgia Court of Appeals, which heard arguments on October 22, 2020. Defendants claimed that Bernecker should legally have been considered an employee rather than an independent contractor. If Bernecker was an employee, it would mean that his family would have to take his claim through the Georgia workers’ compensation system rather than filing a wrongful death suit in civil court. This would erase the $8.6 million verdict.
Attorneys for the defendant argued that Bernecker’s contract referred to him as an “employee,” and lower courts erred in not relying on that wording in coming to their conclusion.
Attorneys for Bernecker’s family argued that the appellate judges should uphold the lower court’s jury decision that Bernecker was indeed an independent contractor. Several pieces of evidence support this claim, including that Bernecker received a 1099 independent contractor tax form, was paid through a loan-out company, came on set as a “visitor,” and worked on various productions on a day-by-day basis.
Another issue was whether or not Bernecker even signed the contract that referred to him as an employee. Attorneys for his family noted that the contract was dated on a date when Bernecker was in a coma in the hospital.
The three-judge appellate panel has yet to reach a decision.
Contact an Employment Law Attorney Today
Issues of whether or not a worker was an independent contractor or an employee at the time of a workplace incident are common in employment law cases. Although there are some key distinctions between the two categories, some workers fall into a grey area, and the difference only becomes important after a workplace incident. Although every case is unique, compensation in a personal injury case may be significantly higher than what’s available through workplace compensation.
An experienced employment law attorney can help sort out these complicated legal issues. If you or a loved one has been injured at a workplace, you may be entitled to compensation, whether through a personal injury lawsuit or through workers’ compensation. Contact the experienced employment law attorneys at The Law Firm of Morgan Rooks, P.C. today by calling (856) 817-6221.