(Adds government response, paragraph 7)
By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON, April 11 A U.S. appeals court on
Friday upheld a federal occupational safety agency's finding
against SeaWorld Entertainment Inc following the
workplace death of one of its killer whale trainers.
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 whales.
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, Florida.
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
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
The company said it had yet to decide on whether to appeal
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."
SeaWorld had appealed over the federal agency's application
of federal safety law to an unusual workplace situation it had
not regulated before.
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)