SeaWorld Defies, Then Appeals Judge’s Ruling in Trainer’s Death

SeaWorld has filed an appeal in federal court in the death of Orlando trainer Dawn Brancheau, even as it remains in violation of the ruling it seeks to overturn.

SeaWorld filed its petition in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit earlier this month. But the company apparently has not requested an injunction against new mandatory safety measures handed down by a lower court, which required trainers to maintain a minimal distance, behind protective barriers, when working with killer whales during shows.

SeaWorld appears to be defying the lower court ruling: Recent visitors to Orlando confirm that trainers continue to hug, kiss, caress and stay in extremely close contact with killer whales onstage and in the “slide-out” area at Shamu Stadium. (See photos)

On May 31, federal administrative law judge Ken Welsch handed down a remarkably harsh ruling against SeaWorld, which had sued the US. Department of Labor in a vain attempt to overturn a violation issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in the 2010 killing of Brancheau by the 12,000-pound orca bull, Tilikum.

And though he reduced the OSHA violation from “willful” to “serious,” Welsch nonetheless upheld the safety abatements and ruled that “using physical barriers and minimum distances eliminate the trainers’ exposure to the recognized hazard of working with killer whales.” The judge ordered SeaWorld to bar trainers from coming in close contact with orcas during shows – and not just Tilikum, who has now been involved in the deaths of three people.

The only way that SeaWorld could legally maintain close contact with orcas during its shows, Welsch wrote, would be by installing “decking systems (fast-rising pool bottoms), oxygen supply systems or other engineering or administrative controls that provide the same or a greater level of protection for the trainers.”