With the release of the documentary Blackfish in 2013, SeaWorld is facing increased public scrutiny for its treatment of its trainers and aquatic life. While the documentary highlights OSHA’s case against SeaWorld that began in 2010, the legal battle is far from over. The marine animal theme park has taken its appeal of OSHA’s restrictions to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Here’s what you need to know about the case:
After the death of senior trainer Dawn Brancheau, OSHA, the federal agency responsible for ensuring safe and healthful working conditions for all employees, opened a safety investigation. OSHA ruled in February 2010 that SeaWorld violated the General Duty Clause by exposing trainers to the recognized hazards of working in close contact with killer whales. SeaWorld was fined $75,000 for three safety violations and received new regulations requiring trainers to remain behind physical barriers and a safe distance from the orcas during performances.
2011 Appeal (The trial in Blackfish):
In 2011, SeaWorld appealed this ruling to the independent OSHA review commission and its safety violation fines were reduced to $12,000 after being downgraded from “willful” to “serious.” However, the administrative-law judge upheld OSHA’s ruling that trainers must be protected by physical barriers during performances, effectively preventing trainers from ever performing in the water with killer whales.
After OSHA’s new safety regulations were upheld in May 2012, SeaWorld filed an appeal with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Oral arguments concluded on November 12, 2013.
SeaWorld is arguing that OSHA has overstepped its authority in using the General Duty Clause to require physical barriers between its performers and whales. Its lead attorney, the former Solicitor of the Department of Labor, argues that imposing these regulations on SeaWorld will in effect alter its business model, and Congress did not give OSHA authority to alter a company’s business model. Furthermore, SeaWorld argues that having trainers perform with the whales is an integral part of its shows and creates an important emotional bond for its trainers, whales, and audience. Removing this aspect from the shows, SeaWorld asserts, would in effect put its product and business model in jeopardy. SeaWorld attorneys likened this regulation forcing the NFL to change the game of football by restricting tackling. Essentially, SeaWorld’s case rides on the argument that OSHA is undermining the “intrinsic premise” of its company’s business model and therefore, its restrictions are outside of OSHA’s scope of authority.
OSHA maintains that the benefits of having the trainers in the water (primarily for entertainment, it argues) during performances do not outweigh the safety risks for SeaWorld employees. OSHA argues that this aspect of its performances is an unnecessary safety hazard that has led to serious worker injury and death. In order for OSHA to win this case, it must disprove SeaWorld’s claims that allowing performers in the water and close contact with the orcas are inherent to its business model.
A decision on the case is not expected for several months. If SeaWorld loses the appeal, it could petition its case to the Supreme Court, which would challenge the constitutionality of OSHA’s scope of the General Duty Clause.
What are your thoughts on the case? Who do you think has the strongest legal case?