ORLANDO — In the latest skirmish in a years-long legal battle prompted by the death of a SeaWorld trainer in Florida, a federal appeals court heard arguments in a case challenging a ban on close contact between SeaWorld staff and killer whales.
In 2010 at the Orlando park, killer whale Tilikum snatched trainer Dawn Brancheau from a platform and thrashed her around underwater until she died. Federal workplace investigators later cited SeaWorld, saying trainers were exposed to hazards because they were allowed unprotected contact with the killer whales.
In the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit on Tuesday, SeaWorld Entertainment’s attorney Eugene Scalia — son of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia — took issue with the way a clause in the Occupational Safety and Health Act was applied to SeaWorld.
The General Safety Clause requires that employers provide a workplace that’s free from hazards that could cause death or serious physical harm to employees. However, as the plaintiffs argue in briefs filed with the court, the clause “cannot be used to force a company to change the very product that it offers to the public, and the business it is in.”
For SeaWorld, its business is close contact, Scalia argued. Close contact is defined as trainers being more than knee-deep in the water.
“SeaWorld exists to offer the opportunity to view that close interaction between whales and people. That is its product that it’s offering,” Scalia said in court.
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