By: Sarah G. Hegener

This week, a Georgia jury began
hearing arguments and testimony in a wrongful death suit filed by the family of
a stunt actor who died on the set of AMC television series, The Walking Dead. John Bernecker died
two years ago after falling more than 20 feet while performing stunts for the
show. Bernecker’s family named production company, Stalwart Film, among others,
as a defendant in the wrongful death suit and filed the claim in the Superior
Court of Gwinnett County.

Attorneys for the defense have
made the pivotal argument that Bernecker’s family is not entitled to pursue a
wrongful death claim because Bernecker was an employee of Stalwart Film. In
such a case, the matter must be handled exclusively under the Georgia Workers’
Compensation Act. On the contrary, Bernecker’s attorneys argue that he was not
Stalwart’s employee, but rather, an independent contractor who is not subject
to Georgia’s workers’ compensation laws.

Determining Bernecker’s
pre-accident employment status is a critical part of this litigation. Under the
Workers’ Compensation Act, workers’ comp benefits provide an exclusive remedy for
employees injured on the job. This means that an employee’s right to seek
workers’ comp benefits precludes his right to pursue any other legal remedies
against his employer. This includes damages for wrongful death.

The catch is that the Workers’
Compensation Act only applies to employees, and not independent contractors.
Bernecker’s attorneys argue that he was an independent contractor of Stalwart
Film, and therefore, he is not to limited workers’ comp benefits. Such a
finding would allow his family continue pursuing their wrongful death claim.
Damages for wrongful death can far exceed the benefits available to a workers’
comp claimant because in a wrongful death suit, the deceased’s family can be
compensated for pain and suffering, and the judge may even award punitive
damages. This makes determining whether Bernecker was an employee or an
independent contractor a critical decision in this case.