In July, stunt performer John Bernecker died after falling from a balcony during a stunt gone wrong on the set of The Walking Dead. On Monday, Bernecker's mother Susannah Bernecker gave her first interview since her son's death after the Occupational Safety and Health Association's ruling against Stalwart Films, The Walking Dead's production company. She expressed outrage at Hollywood's willingness to put stunt performers in danger and people's unwillingness to speak up about unsafe conditions for fear of reprisal, comparing it to the Harvey Weinstein sex scandal.
"If you take out the word 'sex' and put in 'safety,' it's the same thing," Bernecker told Deadline. "This is parallel in my mind. There are the same pressures and the same risks. People are afraid to speak out because they're afraid they'll never work again or that they'll be looked down upon." And it's worst for female stunt performers. "Stunt women have told me about being put in sexual harassment positions to get a job. I had two girls tell me about that in the last year."
On Friday, OSHA fined Stalwart Films the maximum allowable amount for "failing to protect employees from fall hazards," which is only $12,675.
"I think it's ridiculous," Bernecker said of the ruling. "I mean, they spend that much on food for the crew for two days. If this was half a million dollars, it would get their attention. But $12,000 isn't going to get anyone's attention."
Bernecker said she's establishing a foundation in her son's name that will advocate for stunt people's safety, and one of the foundation's missions will be to increase OSHA penalties for negligence (fines for maximum penalties have not been increased since 1991).
"This should not have happened," she said. "This was not the kind of stunt you should be killed on. He did this same stunt (a fall from a balcony) two months earlier in South Carolina. So I'm going to try to change things. My niece is a stunt woman, and I feel a duty to find out what happened, and to do what John would have done, to make it safer for everybody. Because the industry isn't doing it. Somebody's got to get the ball rolling, so I guess I was picked."
Bernecker has set up a website celebrating her son's life so that people can get a sense of who he was as a person.
Stalwart Films told Deadline it disagrees with OSHA's ruling.