Family of boy who saw Brancheau drowning at SeaWorld Orlando sues park

Posted Thursday, August 26, 2010 12:38 PM | Contributed by Jeff

The family of a New Hampshire 10-year-old who watched a killer whale batter and drown a trainer at SeaWorld has filed suit against the amusement park, the Daily News has learned. Todd and Suzanne Connell, who took their son Bobby to Florida in February to celebrate his 10th birthday, say the boy looked straight into Dawn Brancheau's eyes as the doomed trainer briefly freed herself from the orca's jaws.

Read more from The New York Daily News.

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Friday, August 27, 2010 8:07 AM

Glad I'm not going to be on the jury in this case.

But, things to me aren't adding up. Continue filming the tragedy instead of sheltering your child. Threaten to go on Oprah if you don't get a settlement. Send the kid to the school counselor instead of specialist.

I don't disagree with Jeff in that there can be mental injury just as much as there can by physical injury. I just don't know to what extent the park should be liable.

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Friday, August 27, 2010 8:33 AM

Lord Gonchar said:

It's a bystander suing a victim for seeing something horrible happen to that victim.

Without the negligence claim, that would be right. But with the negligence claim it isn't. I understand that a lot of folks won't see the difference or think it should matter. But even tossing aside the legal hat, I think the distinction is valid. And the negligence claim is what distinguishes this situation from the "sometimes bad things happen so deal with it" point of view. At least to me. Others will differ.

This seems no less absurd to me than trying to sue Brancheau's family for Dawn being neglectful in some way and causing their kid to see such a tragic situation unfold.

From an airchair perspective, I can understand the view. But from a legal standpoint (and I understand I am the only non-armchair person in this discussion so no one asked :)), the two are not close. Just sayin.

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Friday, August 27, 2010 8:44 AM

Wow, reading all of this reminded me of the time my high school band was invited to Sea World for a parade. They said the name of our high school wrong. I am so traumatized now I cannot focus on work today. I think I need to go home. I'm not sure who I sue now. Sea World for the mispronunciation, Coasterbuzz for the posts or maybe the family who brought up this lawsuit. Yes, I think I will sue the family. They caused this. It's all their fault. Aughhh! Just kidding ;-)


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Friday, August 27, 2010 9:28 AM
Lord Gonchar's avatar

There's two separate issues here.

1. The whale killing the trainer.

2. The kid seeing it.

Whether you see it or feel it is exactly the distinction I'm talking about, and you're making it.

But I'm not. I'm not discounting the injury. I'm questioning the placement of blame.

To me it sets an ugly precedent if this is successful.

Anyone who witnesses a traumatic event can then claim their witnessing the event is a separate traumatic incident itself that is the fault of those involved in the initial traumatic event.

I just can't buy that chain of logic once you hit the italicized part in the sentence above. Up until there, I'm with you. After that, it falls apart.

It just blows my mind to try to get behind the idea that you can sue people who were in an accident because you happened to see it.


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Friday, August 27, 2010 9:28 AM
Carrie M.'s avatar

*EDIT* Gonch got in here before me to speak for himself. But whatever, I spent a lot of time pecking this out so I'm leaving it. :)

Jeff said:


But if you fail to make that distinction, but would readily agree that the Lassiters, for example, were entitled to compensation when a ride cut off her feet, then how you can claim this is any less valid? Whether you see it or feel it is exactly the distinction I'm talking about, and you're making it.

I don't think anyone is arguing over the fact that it's mental anguish over physical anguish. I think the debate is over what caused the anguish, period.

This analogy doesn't hold up. The equivalent would be someone who sues for damages because of the mental trauma they experienced while on the ride along with Lassiter frightened for their life. Or back to this example, if the kid were in the tank with Tilly during one of those feed the orca deals when he freaked out on the trainer, that would be comparable to a ride malfunction.

If someone were at a park when an employee gets clipped by a coaster while doing maintenance (or hopping a fence or whatever) and sees it happen, can they sue?

I really don't know. I don't know where the law stands. But before we continue claiming Gonch doesn't believe in the merits of psychology, I think we should be clear about what the argument really is.

I think it's merely that folks think we seem to be fast approaching a point where there is no such thing as an accident. Everything has a cause and a blame and therefore a reason to sue. That's a scary place to be.

Last edited by Carrie M., Friday, August 27, 2010 9:29 AM

"If passion drives you, let reason hold the reins." --- Benjamin Franklin

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Friday, August 27, 2010 9:49 AM
LostKause's avatar

Lord Gonchar said:

Feels wrong to happen to be in a place to witness something like this go down and then blame the victims for your seeing it.

Acoustic Viscosity said:
It wasn't their (SeaWorld's) fault. The only way this could have been absolutely prevented was if they didn't have the show at all.

I don't consider SeaWorld to be a victim here. The real victim is the orca trainer. It was SeaWorld's decision, at the beginning of the park's inception, to allow trainers and whales to be in a show, in front of an audience, together. They had to know the danger involved, and that someday something like this may happen. SeaWorld is at least partially responsible for anything that goes wrong during their shows.


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Friday, August 27, 2010 9:52 AM

Good points Carrie.

A number of people presumably witnessed the accident at the Dells. Are those witnesses all entitled to compensation?

Hundreds of thousands of people witnessed Dale Earnhardt crash on the racetrack, not to mention millions of people at home. People argued that the racetrack and NASCAR were guilty of not providing for more protections for the drivers. Are they then liable for all those people who watched that tragedy unfold?

I don't discount someone being mentally traumatized by what happened (even though I'm suspicious of this particular family's intent) but I just think this opens up a Pandora's box.

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Friday, August 27, 2010 10:11 AM
Lord Gonchar's avatar

Carrie M. said:
*EDIT* Gonch got in here before me to speak for himself. But whatever, I spent a lot of time pecking this out so I'm leaving it. :)

Heh. You said it better than me anyway.

And you put in a Lassiter comparison that I had typed, but removed.

LostKause said:
SeaWorld is at least partially responsible for anything that goes wrong during their shows.

Wow. That's such a scary thought process. It's exactly the kind of thing Carrie describes at the end of her last post.

wahoo skipper said:
Are they then liable for all those people who watched that tragedy unfold?

I don't discount someone being mentally traumatized by what happened...but I just think this opens up a Pandora's box

Exactly. All of the crazy examples everyone has given so far fall in that same category.

Hell, how far down the chain can we go and still have a case.

I'm the parent of a child who saw a traumatic event. My life has been turned upside down. I can't sleep out of worry for my child, my stress has caused my work performance to suffer and my quality of life to decline.

And then from there can my employer sue due to loss of productivity because of my stress because my child saw the accident.

And then can my employers clients sue for not getting the product as promised because of the loss of productivity because of my stress because my kids saw the original accident.

Of course, I'm being facetious... kind of. :)


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Friday, August 27, 2010 10:28 AM

The slippery slope is an argument often used in this type of situation. Though sometimes the slope is neither as steep nor as slick as it is portrayed to be. Sometimes it is. Courts typically are able to sort that out. If not, legislatures get involved.

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Friday, August 27, 2010 10:31 AM
Tekwardo's avatar

LK, the trainer was well aware, just as much as Sea World, about what could happen. The kid should sue her estate?


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Friday, August 27, 2010 11:38 AM

LostKause said:

I don't consider SeaWorld to be a victim here. The real victim is the orca trainer. It was SeaWorld's decision, at the beginning of the park's inception, to allow trainers and whales to be in a show, in front of an audience, together. They had to know the danger involved, and that someday something like this may happen. SeaWorld is at least partially responsible for anything that goes wrong during their shows.

Travis, how far do you want to take your argument? Do we want parks to start thinking that they're responsible for everything that could possibly go wrong on their properties? Anything mechanical has the potential to break or fail- so should they get rid of rides so they're not responsible? People could possibly get sick from food, so should they eliminate that?

And that's just one tiny segment of our society. What happens when we apply that thinking everywhere? People are much more likely to witness a fatal vehicle accident than a drowning/killer whale attack. What about all the death and gore people see in movies and on TV? Piranha might not be real life, but I bet it could induce some very real nightmares.

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Friday, August 27, 2010 11:53 AM

RatherGoodBear said:
People are much more likely to witness a fatal vehicle accident...

About a decade ago, I witnessed a horrendous car accident while working an overnight road construction shift. A car came flying by us, lost control and ran into a bridge abutment at 90+ mph. The scene was beyond horrific, and I had to try and console the victim as she lay there dying while I called for help.

That sort of thing sticks with you, probably forever, and yeah, it causes the occasional nightmare. But like this attack, it's just a random accident. Stuff happens.

It occurred on I-94. I guess that means I get to sue the government! :)


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Friday, August 27, 2010 12:09 PM
Jeff's avatar

Acoustic Viscosity said:
I have the "reasonable expectation" that no matter where I go and no matter how many precautions are taken, bad stuff can happen... It wasn't their fault.

But that's exactly what has to be determined here. I'm not sure why some of you are so willing to give SeaWorld a free pass on this. If a roller coaster was known to hurt people (as the whale was), and someone sued the park because the roller coaster hurt them, I doubt a single person here would question the suit.

GoBucks89 said:
The slippery slope is an argument often used in this type of situation. Though sometimes the slope is neither as steep nor as slick as it is portrayed to be. Sometimes it is. Courts typically are able to sort that out.

Exactly. "Stuff happens" is not a defense. This kind of "stuff" does not generally happen in what any rational person would consider normal in a theme park.

And come on, the NASCAR argument is pretty weak. By definition people hope to see a crash at those events. They even fill the TV promos with crashes. That expectation is totally the opposite of what you expect when you enter the stadium to see Shamu. (Insert Jurassic Park "Pirates don't eat the tourists" reference here.)

Again, whether or not the parents are douchebags is irrelevant. Unfortunate, perhaps, but not relevant to the case even a little.


Jeff - Editor - CoasterBuzz.com - My Blog - Phrazy

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Friday, August 27, 2010 12:37 PM
mlnem4s's avatar

I don't consider SeaWorld to be a victim here. The real victim is the orca trainer. It was SeaWorld's decision, at the beginning of the park's inception, to allow trainers and whales to be in a show, in front of an audience, together. They had to know the danger involved, and that someday something like this may happen. SeaWorld is at least partially responsible for anything that goes wrong during their shows.

I have to come to Sea World's defense on this. First of all, they went many, many years during their inception without trainers entering the water (in the 70's and first half of the 80's.) It was only after a decade or more worth of studying, learning and developing bonds with the orcas that they felt it was safe for trainers to interact with them in the water. (After all, orcas belong to the same family of mammals as dolphins and trainers have long worked with dolphins in the water.) It should be noted we have gone DECADES without any injuries causing death by interacting with the orca whales at Sea World parks. Trainers have years and years of experience working with the orcas and know when a whale is having an "off day," they simply don't use that whale or they limit their interaction with them. Everything I know about Sea World's animal programs is that the first priority is safety, both for the animals as well as the trainers. How could it not be? Their entire operation is built around the success of Shamu and the supporting cast of animals. Without them Sea World would cease to exist.

Tilikum is a unique circumstance. I have never worked at Sea World Orlando but even I knew about "Tili Talk" from a good friend who was the Operations Manager in Aurora prior to it closing. To my knowledge, from day one the strictest of protocols was taken with him due to his history and the fact he is just a BIG whale. Dawn, for whatever reason, must have felt comfortable enough being on a submerged platform in the water with him to do interactions after working with him for so many years. Whether it was her ponytail brushing his mouth or something else that set him off we will probably never know. What is clear is Tilikum has the ability to rip a person to shreds if he so chooses, and in both incidents with him he has never done that with either trainer whose cause of death was due to blunt force trauma because of his size/weight and drowning.

To me, the situation is a question of revisiting handling procedures with Tilikum to make sure trainers are in a "safety zone" when working with him along with having spotters (as there were the day of Dawn's death), better emergency response tools readily available (supposedly the nets were tangled up and time was lost trying to get them to function properly) and improving the "people" emergency response procedures to avoid the chaos that was reported to occur that day. If these issues can be addressed, I am confident it is safe for trainers and orcas to once again interact in the water during shows.

Last edited by mlnem4s, Friday, August 27, 2010 1:05 PM
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Friday, August 27, 2010 12:52 PM
Raven-Phile's avatar

djDaemon said:

About a decade ago, I witnessed a horrendous car accident while working an overnight road construction shift. A car came flying by us, lost control and ran into a bridge abutment at 90+ mph. The scene was beyond horrific, and I had to try and console the victim as she lay there dying while I called for help.

Thanks for telling me that story. Now I have nightmares. Expect a call from my lawyer.

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Friday, August 27, 2010 12:58 PM
Lord Gonchar's avatar

Jeff said:
This kind of "stuff" does not generally happen in what any rational person would consider normal in a theme park.

And still it doesn't mean it's someone's fault if it does.

"I saw something bad" shouldn't be grounds for a lawsuit.

EDIT - that sounds like I'm making the distinction again, but I can't find a better way of saying it.

Last edited by Lord Gonchar, Friday, August 27, 2010 1:12 PM
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Friday, August 27, 2010 1:05 PM

A couple discussion points.

  1. My Beach Waterpark scenario indeed fits. The park was negligent in giving access to their guests to see "bad" stuff. Just as Sea World had to know their whale could do damage, The Beach Waterpark had to know their guests could see tragedy on a highway. I bet there is a much better chance to see "bad" stuff on a highway than at a whale show. Either way, both cases fit the legal definition of negligence that has been bantered about on this thread. Note that I think this argument is weak/pathetic, but indeed applicable.
  2. Any trainer who gets near wild animals, let alone giant wild animals, knows the risks. While I can see a case for the trainer, I'm guessing they would not want me on that jury. They certainly don't want me on the jury for the kid that observed the accident.
  3. The reason Sea World is so popular is that we all want to see Killer Whales. We are not there to see Orca's or Giant Dolphins. It is the RISK of the trainer, and the anticipation of "what could happen" that sells the tickets. I think NASCAR comparison is reasonably valid. Everybody knows the Dolphins and Sea Lions do better tricks. We go to see the HUGE KILLER WHALES and the CRAZY TRAINERS who risk life and limb getting in the water with them. If parents don't want to risk their child seeing a possible accident, no matter how small the chance, don't take them to the show. I think the kid has a negligence case against mom and dad.

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Friday, August 27, 2010 1:13 PM

I completely disagree with your third point. The last thing I want to see -- and I would certainly never bring my child if I thought there was any real chance of it happening -- is an animal maul or kill a human. I don't go there because of any risk factor, but because my child wants to see the cute animal do tricks.


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Friday, August 27, 2010 1:19 PM

Raven-Phile said:
Thanks for telling me that story. Now I have nightmares. Expect a call from my lawyer.

You read it on Jeff's site. Sue him. :)


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Friday, August 27, 2010 1:30 PM

It has never entered your mind that this animal could injure the trainer?

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