SeaWorld lawyers in D.C. to reverse OSHA rules after trainer death

Oral Arguments in SeaWorld of Florida, LLC v. Thomas Perez

Michelle Murillo | November 14, 2014 10:30 pm

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WASHINGTON — Veteran SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau was killed in 2010 when a six-ton killer whale named Tilikum pulled her into a pool during a show in Orlando.

Afterward, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued three citations against the theme park, accusing it of not protecting trainers from the animal they say had “aggressive tendencies.”

One of the citations prohibited trainers from swimming with killer whales without a physical barrier, ending a part of the traditional show in which trainers rode the whales and performed in the water with them.

On Tuesday, SeaWorld lawyers accused OSHA of overstepping their bounds and asked that the citations against them be overturned.

The team SeaWorld lawyers is headed Eugene Scalia, son of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. They brought their case before three U.S. appellate judges in an auditorium at Georgetown University’s Law School.

Scalia claimed that part of SeaWorld’s business model is trainers having contact with whales during shows. Plus, he said veterinarians are unable to care for the animals properly because of the contact restrictions.

Scalia said trainers, like professional athletes, know there is risk that comes with the job. With proper training, they believe the risk can be diminished. He also pointed out that there isn’t a push to eliminate close contact from the NFL.

Scalia citied that before Brancheau was killed, SeaWorld employees had 50,000 interactions with orcas over 20 years without incident.

SeaWorld attorneys also took issue with an expert witness the government brought during the Brancheau trial. Scalia claimed David Duffus, director of the Whale Research Lab at University of Victoria, was only an expert on wild orcas, not those held captive.

Scalia said OSHA brought the “wrong expert to this dance.”

Attorneys for OSHA, led by Amy Tryon, said an employer has the responsibility of keeping their employees safe and that is what these restrictions do. She says SeaWorld has shown that they can put on shows without having close contact between whales and trainers.

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