Federal Appeals Court Denies SeaWorld's Attempt to Skirt Safety Rules

Photo by Orca Research Trust

Washington, DCThe Animal Welfare Institute is pleased to report that a panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the District Of Columbia Circuit today denied SeaWorld of Florida’s petition for review of the citation issued in August 2010 by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). SeaWorld had sought to overturn a May 2012 ruling by Administrative Law Judge Ken Welsch, who sided with OSHA in finding that SeaWorld exposed its orca trainers to recognized hazards when working in close contact with the animals during performances, and that the abatement procedures recommended by the Secretary of Labor were feasible.

This case follows the tragic death of Dawn Brancheau , one of SeaWorld’s many trainers who worked in close contact with orcas and was killed in February 2010 by Tilikum, an orca who previously killed two other individuals. An OSHA investigation following Brancheau’s death resulted in the Secretary of Labor issuing three citations to SeaWorld. The citation at issue in this appeal was for two instances of a “willful” violation of federal safety rules for exposing trainers to the recognized hazards of drowning or injury when working with killer whales during performances.

Sea World argued that there was no substantial evidence that SeaWorld exposed its employees to a “recognized hazard.” The court disagreed, stating “[t]he caution with which SeaWorld treated Tilikum even when trainers were poolside or on ‘slideouts’ in the pool indicates that it recognized the hazard the killer whale posed, not that it considered its protocols rendered Tilikum safe.” The court further noted, “SeaWorld’s incident reports demonstrate that it recognized the danger its killer whales posed to trainers notwithstanding its protocols.”

The court also found that “[s]ubstantial evidence supports the [lower court’s] findings that it was feasible for SeaWorld to abate the hazard to its employees by using barriers or minimum distance between trainers and killer whales, most notably because SeaWorld has implemented many of these measures on its own.”

“This ruling supports our contention that, from a common sense perspective, it is simply not safe to work in close contact with an intelligent, multi-ton marine predator,” said Dr. Naomi Rose, marine mammal scientist for AWI. “The relationship trainers have with these whales is important to the whales, who are social animals, but it’s not safe for the trainers. The fact is orcas don’t belong in captivity in the first place.”


Media Contact:
Naomi Rose, AWI, 240-401-4269, naomi@awionline.org

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