Lower Fine for SeaWorld Whale Trainer’s Death

By MIKE SCHNEIDER | June 1, 2012

SeaWorld Orlando’s $75,000 fine from the federal job safety agency for the death of a trainer by a killer whale two years ago has been reduced to $12,000, according to a judge’s ruling obtained Wednesday.

The Associated Press acquired Judge Ken Welsch’s decision that reduced the most serious violation SeaWorld faced in Dawn Brancheau’s 2010 death from “willful” to “serious.” The ruling is scheduled to be released Thursday.

Brancheau, a 40-year-old veteran trainer who adored whales, had just finished a show on Feb. 24, 2010, when she began rubbing a 22-foot (6.7-meter) male whale named Tilikum from a poolside platform. He suddenly grabbed her ponytail in his jaws and pulled her in. Witnesses said the whale played with Brancheau like a toy. An autopsy showed she died of drowning and blunt-force trauma to her head, neck and torso.

A “willful” violation indicates an employer acted with intentional disregard or indifference.

SeaWorld spokesman Fred Jacobs said Wednesday that park officials were still reading the decision and couldn’t comment on how it would affect interactions with killer whales at the park.

The decision by the administrative law judge was followed closely by SeaWorld since the most serious Occupational Safety and Health Administration citation criticized the park for allowing trainers to have unprotected contact with Tilikum, who was known to have aggressive tendencies. SeaWorld also has parks in San Diego and San Antonio.

Tilikum also was involved in the death of a trainer at a marine park in British Columbia in 1991. In a separate incident, the body of a man who had sneaked into SeaWorld was found draped over Tilikum in 1999. The man either jumped, fell or was pulled into the frigid water and died of hypothermia, though he was also bruised and scratched by Tilikum.

During a hearing last year, SeaWorld officials argued that the three safety citations were unfounded and that the park’s protocols for protecting trainers were sound.

But OSHA argued that trainers should have some kind of physical barrier when working with whales

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