TITUSVILLE, Fla. (CN) – SeaWorld fired its safety director for refusing to obstruct a federal investigation of the death of the animal trainer who was killed by an orca this year, the woman claims in Brevard County Court. Linda Simons claims SeaWorld ordered her to “to obstruct the investigation, manipulate documents, withhold documents, make witnesses unavailable,” fired her when she refused to do it, and then defamed her in a “massive false public relations campaign.”
SeaWorld animal trainer Dawn Brancheau was killed in February when the 6-ton orca named Tilikum pulled her underwater and drowned her. The incident made national headlines, which continued when it was alleged that the killer whale had been involved in previous fatal attacks, one of them involving a man who allegedly jumped into the animal’s tank after the park had closed.
The safety director, Linda Simons, also claims that SeaWorld of Florida defamed her to the media by claiming that she had “asked for money in exchange to not go public with her claims.”
Simons says SeaWorld hired her as its director of health and safety on Feb. 24. Eight days later, Brancheau was killed by the orca. The Occupational Safety & Health Administration investigated and Simons was assigned to be liaison between it and SeaWorld.
Simon claims she “was told by defendants to obstruct the investigation, manipulate documents, withhold documents, make witnesses unavailable, and other improprieties which were unlawful, when a government agency is doing an investigation.”
The complaint continues: “Plaintiff voiced her concerns to management and refused to participate in the illegal actions which were demanded by defendants. On or about April 22, 2010, plaintiff was terminated in violation of 29 USD § 660, and FS 448 102(2) and 448 102(3), for cooperating with an OSHA investigation.”
She filed a retaliation complaint with OSHA in May, and a request for arbitration in August, “as required by defendant’s mandatory arbitration program.”
On Aug. 23, OSHA “found defendants to have acted with reckless disregard for human life and fined defendants the maximum fine of $70,000” for the fatal orca attack, according to the complaint.
Before OSHA issued its report, Simon says, “Due to ‘political pressures,’ the OSHA Atlanta office and the OSHA Washington Office got involved in the preparation of the reports. Plaintiff, in order to bring the events that were transpiring to the public, decided to truthfully convey what was occurring to many forms of the media.”
Simon appeared on “Good Morning America,” “Inside Edition,” “Larry King Live” and other shows, and gave interviews to large newspapers, including the New York Daily News and Orlando Sentinel. “In response, defendants set out a massive false public relations campaign to defame and slander plaintiff,” she says.
“The slanderous statements include (a) Ms. Simons is extorting defendants (b) Plaintiff was terminated by defendants due to poor performance … (e) Ms. Simons repeatedly demonstrated an inability to conduct herself with integrity … (i) Ms. Simons asked for money in exchange not to go public with her claims.”
To the contrary, Simon says, “At the time of her termination, defendants offered money to the plaintiff in exchange for plaintiff’s silence and release of her claims. Plaintiff refused to sign the agreement.
“Defendants’ statements were intentional and malicious. In the alternative, they were negligent.”
She says that SeaWorld’s acts constituted a “direct attack on plaintiff’s professional character and standing. Additional, the libelous statements contain allegations that plaintiff has committed a crime of moral turpitude.”
Simons seeks punitive damages for slander and libel. She is represented by Maunce Arcadier of West Melbourne.