By a vote of 2-1, the three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of
Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit held that SeaWorld had
violated its duties as an employer by exposing trainers to
"recognized hazards" when working with killer whales. The ruling
means the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) can
require SeaWorld to limit the interactions trainers have with killer
The federal agency had fined the company $75,000, a sum later
reduced to $12,000, after trainer Dawn Brancheau died in February
2010. She drowned after being pulled underwater by Tilikum, a
12,000-pound (5,400-kg) bull orca at the SeaWorld site in Orlando,
OSHA, which is part of the U.S. Department of Labor, had told
SeaWorld it could resolve the problem by requiring trainers to be
protected by physical barriers or by adopting other abatement
SeaWorld, which operates 11 parks around the United States, said in
a statement that it already has introduced new safety procedures,
including removing trainers from the water during shows. Even after
the court's ruling, "there will still be human interactions and
performances with killer whales," the statement said.
The company said it had yet to decide on whether to appeal the
The Labor Department said in a statement that courts have
"consistently upheld our position that killer whales pose a danger
to employees who are not adequately protected."
Human-orca interaction has long been filled with controversy,
revisited last year with the release of the movie "Blackfish" about
Brancheau's death and Tilikum's career as an entertainer and stud
for other captive whales. SeaWorld has criticized the film as
"inaccurate and misleading."
Rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA)
welcomed the court decision. Jared Goodman, the group's director of
animal law, said it "brings to an end the days of trainers standing
and riding on orcas for human amusement."
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SeaWorld had appealed over the federal agency's application of
federal safety law to an unusual workplace situation it had not
The appeals court concluded that OSHA did not overstep its authority
in bringing the action against SeaWorld.
"Statements by SeaWorld managers do not indicate that SeaWorld's
safety protocols and training made the killer whales safe; rather,
they demonstrate SeaWorld's recognition that the killer whales
interacting with trainers are dangerous," Judge Judith Rogers wrote
on behalf of the court.
She played down SeaWorld's concerns about the impact on its
operations, saying that improved safety "does not change the
essential nature of the business."
Judge Brett Kavanaugh wrote a dissenting opinion noting that people
who work in dangerous fields in the sports and entertainment context
are aware of the risks.
OSHA has "departed from tradition and stormed headlong into a new
regulatory arena," he said.
The case is SeaWorld v. Dept. of Labor, 12-1375.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; additional reporting by Carlyn
Kolker; editing by Howard Goller, Tom Brown and Jonathan Oatis)
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