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Tuesday, May 28, 2024 | Back issues
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Subpoenas Enforced in SeaWorld Drowning Case

ORLANDO (CN) - Federal safety officials can enforce subpoenas against SeaWorld Orlando over the 2010 drowning of a whale trainer, a federal judge ruled.

Dawn Brancheau died during a Feb. 24, 2010, "Dine With Shamu" performance when she was pulled into the tank by Tilikum, a 20-foot-long male orca at SeaWorld's Shamu Stadium in Orlando.

Witnesses eating dinner near a subterranean viewing tank said they saw Tilikum playing with the corpse.

The Occupational Health and Safety Administration cited SeaWorld later that year, and an administrative law judge affirmed three violations. They faulted SeaWorld for failing to have a railing on stairways, unprotected trainer contact with the aggressive killer whale Tilikum, and inadequately protected trainer contact with killer whales other than Tilikum.

Once the decision became final July 17, 2012, SeaWorld had 10 days to abate the violations.

On July 27, Sea World petitioned to modify the abatement date. It said it had abated two of the violations, but that it needed more time to correct the violation involving whales other than Tilikum.

At a follow-up inspection, OSHA issued administrative subpoenas to three SeaWorld employees, Tony Moore, Craig Thomas, and Brian McFadden. SeaWorld and the employees insisted, however, that they would not give testimony pertaining to the abatement date modification petition.

Claiming that SeaWorld's petition lacked a preclusive, limiting or tolling effect, the U.S. Department of Labor petitioned the court to enforce the subpoenas in December.

Heeding a magistrate's recommendation, U.S. District Judge Roy Dalton sided with the agency Thursday.

"OSHA may reinspect the premises - and issue administrative subpoenas as part of the reinspection process - to ensure abatement," Dalton wrote. "As such, respondents' objections are not well-taken. Enforcement of the administrative subpoenas does not infringe on the ALJ's authority to rule on the PMA, though the ALJ's ultimate decision may moot OSHA's follow-up inspection. Nevertheless, Sea World currently has a duty to abate in accordance with the original abatement deadline, and OSHA may act to enforce the required abatement."

SeaWorld is currently appealing the violations finding to D.C. Circuit. It petition to modify the abatement date is still pending as well.

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