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Seaworld v. OSHA hearing may be kept secret (2/14)

February 14, 2011
Dawn Brancheau and Tilikum at SeaWorld Orlando


A legal maneuver by SeaWorld may prevent the public from learning the details of an upcoming SeaWorld v. OSHA hearing into the death of a killer whale trainer last year.

The company is expected to ask an Orlando judge to sign a protective order that would effectively seal off the details of the high profile case forever, according to a press release issued by the Orca Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to killer whales.

“In the past, SeaWorld has been successful at maintaining a cloak of secrecy in cases regarding employee injuries, akin to the crippling of trainer John Sillick in 1987, and it’s expected they will try to follow the same path after the death of their veteran orca trainer nearly one year ago,” says the Orca Project.

SeaWorld is contesting OSHA citations issued in August following an investigation into the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau, who drowned after being dragged by a killer whale into a tank. OSHA’s proposed $75,000 in fines against the company include $70,000 for a willful violation for knowingly placing its employees at risk.

“SeaWorld recognized the inherent risk of allowing trainers to interact with potentially dangerous animals," said Cindy Coe, an OSHA regional administrator. "Nonetheless, it required its employees to work within pool walls, on ledges and on shelves where they were subject to dangerous behavior by the animals."

SeaWorld issued a statement objecting to the citation, charging that OSHA's allegations were “unsupported by any evidence or precedent and reflect a fundamental lack of understanding of the safety requirement associated with marine mammal care," despite the fact that OSHA had investigated a similar incident in San Diego in 2006.

The willful violation, says the Orca Project, left the company vulnerable to legal action by Brancheau’s family, witnesses and employees who were terminated. “It has also sparked a growing number of former SeaWorld employees to speak out about the culture of working with orcas and the secrecy that shrouds the marine mammal entertainment industry.”

The proceedings before Federal Judge Ben Welch, originally scheduled to begin Monday, February 14, 2011 have been rescheduled to April 25, 2011, in Orlando, Forida

If a protective order is issued by the Judge, it could bar the public from participating in the hearing and seal all content, including expert witness testimony from both sides and the documentation and evidence about the conditions associated with orca (killer whale) captivity. Expert witnesses who participate in the trial would be prohibited from discussing or write anything about it publicly. It would also prevent content from being used for future litigation or investigation.