San Diego Business Journal

U.S. Court of Appeals Rules Against SeaWorld Parent Company

By Lou Hirsh Sunday, April 13, 2014

A U.S. appeals court has ruled against the parent company of SeaWorld San Diego, affirming a federal labor agency finding following the 2010 death of a whale trainer at the Florida park operated by SeaWorld Entertainment Inc.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, by a vote of 2-1, ruled that SeaWorld exposed trainers to “recognized hazards” related to work with killer whales. The ruling affirms the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s decision to require SeaWorld to limit interactions between trainers and orcas, through physical barriers or other measures.

OSHA also fined SeaWorld $75,000 – later reduced to $12,000 – following the drowning death of trainer Dawn Brancheau at SeaWorld Orlando in February 2010.

In a statement, officials of SeaWorld Entertainment said the company has already introduced new safety measures, including keeping whale trainers out of the water during shows. Despite the court ruling, “there will still be human interactions” and killer whale performances at the company’s parks, officials said.

Jared Goodman, director of animal law for PETA Foundation, said in a statement that the court’s ruling “signals an end to the days of trainers standing and riding on orcas for human amusement at SeaWorld.” The foundation is the legal advocacy arm of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

Orlando-based SeaWorld Entertainment (NYSE: SEAS) operates 11 parks nationwide, including SeaWorld San Diego at Mission Bay and the Aquatica waterpark in Chula Vista.

SeaWorld recently closed on a secondary offering of 17.25 million shares of common stock sold by stockholders affiliated with The Blackstone Group LP, at a price of $30 per share, for gross proceeds of approximately $517.5 million.

New York-based Blackstone remains the largest stock holder in SeaWorld Entertainment, with approximately 25 percent of shares.