Hearing on SeaWorld Trainer's Death: Keep It Open to the Public

SeaWorld is likely to petition an administrative judge to close hearings into the death of senior trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was killed by an orca last February at SeaWorld Orlando, according to a statement issued by the group, The Orca Project. SeaWorld also reportedly wants all testimony and other evidence sealed from what is sure to be a heated and emotional hearing this April.

"It is anticipated that an Orlando Judge will be asked to sign a Protective Order for an upcoming SeaWorld vs. OSHA hearing, effectively sealing off the details of this high profile case forever," the Orca Project said.

At issue is whether SeaWorld acted with negligence in the death of Brancheau, who was mauled, dismembered and drowned by the killer whale Tilikum, an animal that was already involved in the deaths of two other people. Last August, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) found SeaWorld "willfully" responsible and issued citations and fines totaling $75,000.

SeaWorld is contesting that action. Many observers say the company had no choice if it wants to shield itself from liability in Brancheau's death and pave the way for trainers to return to "water work" with the killer whales, in which they surf, swim with, and launch from the giant creatures.

In order to do that, SeaWorld attorneys will clearly have to lay the blame for Dawn's demise squarely on her own shoulders -- they will have to trash a dead woman and beloved employee in open court in order to win their case. And, they will have to fend off scathing accusations by OSHA attorneys, who will argue that SeaWorld continually put profit over personal safety when it came to killer whales.

One easily can understand why SeaWorld might want to close these hearings. But this is a public matter involving a federal investigation conducted at taxpayer expense, and it involves serious worker safety issues and the treatment of captive marine mammals, which is also subject to federal regulations.

There is no possible rationale for closing these hearings and sealing the record, other than to protect a multibillion dollar corporation from airing its laundry before the public and press.

"In the past, SeaWorld has been successful at maintaining a cloak of secrecy in cases regarding employee injuries," the Orca Project statement said, "and it's expected they will try to follow the same path after the death of their veteran orca trainer."

If the judge issues the order, the group alleged:

It could bar the public from participating in the hearing and seal all content, including expert witness testimony from both sides and the documentation and evidence describing the suboptimal conditions associated with orca (killer whale) captivity. If the attempt to seal is successful, expert witnesses who participate in this trial would not be allowed to discuss or write anything about it publicly. It will also prevent content from being used for future litigation or investigation... essentially closing the details from public view and scrutiny forever.

SeaWorld has much to fear. Aside from the unwanted scrutiny of the public and press, it faces a deeply determined OSHA armed with ample evidence to support its case against the popular marine park conglomerate.

"SeaWorld recognized the inherent risk of allowing trainers to interact with potentially dangerous animals," said Cindy Coe, OSHA's regional administrator in Atlanta, Ga. "Nonetheless, it required its employees to work within the pool walls, on ledges and on shelves where they were subject to dangerous behavior by the animals."

The OSHA investigation into Brancheau's death "revealed that SeaWorld trainers had an extensive history of unexpected and potentially dangerous incidents involving killer whales at its various facilities, including its location in Orlando," an OSHA statement said. "Despite this record, management failed to make meaningful changes to improve the safety of the work environment for its employees."

The public has a right to hear more about what the OSHA investigation revealed, and what its expert witnesses have to say about SeaWorld's role in this terrible but preventable tragedy.

For more information on what the public can do to demand open hearings, please visit THE ORCA PROJECT.

David Kirby's third non-fiction book, "Death at SeaWorld," investigates the captive marine mammal industry and the circumstances around the killing of trainer Dawn Brancheau by the orca Tilikum, at SeaWorld Orlando. It will be released by St. Martin's Press in 2012.