A U.S. appeals court on Friday upheld a federal occupational safety agency's finding against SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. following the workplace death of one of its killer whale trainers.
The ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit could have a major impact on how SeaWorld presents its shows, because it would require increased separation of humans and killer whales.
The three-judge panel, split 2-1, held that SeaWorld had violated its duties as an employer by exposing trainers to "recognized hazards" when working with killer whales.
A spokesman for SeaWorld, which operates 11 parks around the United States, had no immediate comment on the ruling.
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined the company $75,000 after trainer Dawn Brancheau died in February 2010. She drowned after being pulled underwater by Tilikum, a 12,000-pound bull orca at the SeaWorld site in Orlando, Fla.
The fine was later reduced to $12,000, but SeaWorld was more concerned by the federal agency's application of federal safety law to an unusual workplace situation.
OSHA has told SeaWorld it could resolve the problem by requiring trainers to be protected by physical barriers or by adopting other abatement measures.
The appeals court concluded that OSHA did not overstep its authority in bringing the action against SeaWorld.
"Statements by SeaWorld managers do not indicate that SeaWorld's safety protocols and training made the killer whales safe; rather, they demonstrate SeaWorld's recognition that the killer whales interacting with trainers are dangerous," Judge Judith Rogers wrote on behalf of the court.
She played down SeaWorld's concerns about the impact on its operations, saying that improved safety "does not change the essential nature of the business."
Judge Brett Kavanaugh wrote a dissenting opinion, noting that people who work in dangerous fields in the sports and entertainment context are aware of the risks.
OSHA has "departed from tradition and stormed headlong into a new regulatory arena," he said.