A federal judge in California will allow consumers suing SeaWorld Entertainment (SEAS) to move forward with their claims that the company allegedly lied about the health and treatment of its orca whales to entice them to buy tickets and merchandise.
On Tuesday in Oakland, Judge Jeffrey S. White of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California ruled that SeaWorld cannot dismiss the claims brought by Juliette Morizur and other park guests because they were properly filed under the state's Consumer Legal Remedies Act and Unfair Competition Law, according to court papers.
"SeaWorld moves to dismiss Ms. Morizur's claim on the basis that the facts fail to allege SeaWorld's conduct is 'unfair,'" White said in his ruling. "Ms. Morizur alleged that she asked SeaWorld's trainers questions about their captive orca's collapsed dorsal fins."
The trainers allegedly told Morizur that the collapsed fins were "normal and also equally common in the wild" and that "captivity in general does not harm orcas," White noted in court papers.
"In reliance on SeaWorld's deceptive advertising regarding its treatment and the health of captive orcas, plaintiffs purchased admission tickets to and souvenirs at SeaWorld's San Diego amusement park," the consumers argued in their court filing, stating they "suffered monetary harm."
"The Court has invited SeaWorld to raise these arguments again by way of summary judgment or in opposition to class certification, and we intend to do just that," SeaWorld spokesman Larry Iser said in an email to TheStreet.
The consumer claims were filed in response to the 2013 documentary Blackfish - which revolves around Tilikum, who died in captivity last month. The movie tells the story of the male orca, who was taken from the ocean at a young age, and due to the stress and limited life he experienced in the tanks of SeaWorld, he became aggressive, resulting in the deaths of two of his trainers.
The famed Tilikum was known for his collapsed fin, a sign, according to Blackfish, that the animal was in distress. The documentary argues that there is no evidence of an orca whale in the wild having a collapsed fin.
Tilikum's distress was likely a result of being confined to small pools, oftentimes inhabited by other female orcas who attacked him. During his training, SeaWorld also would refrain from feeding Tilikum when he did not perform correctly, the documentary said.
The consumers' third amended complaint will now move forward as a result of Tuesday's ruling. Previous attempts by the consumers to bring claims against SeaWorld were thrown out by Judge White.
Some of the prior claims argued that the consumers, relying on SeaWorld's false advertisements, bought Shamu plush dolls which they would not have done otherwise.
"SeaWorld is in more hot water...audiences aren't buying SeaWorld's tickets or lies and are still waiting for the company to retire these animals to seaside sanctuaries," said Tracy Reiman, PETA executive VP.
SeaWorld ended its orca breeding and shut down its theatrical shows at its San Diego park on Jan. 8 in favor of a natural orca encounter. The killer whale theatrical shows at its San Antonio and Orlando parks will close by 2019.