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Ex-Trainer Sues Sea World Over Whale Injuries

March 04, 1988|JENIFER WARREN and GREG JOHNSON | Times Staff Writers

Just days after Sea World officials decided to let humans rejoin killer whales in the water for performances, a former trainer Thursday sued the park. He alleges that injuries inflicted by two of the giant mammals during a show last year were caused by the negligence of Sea World and its parent company.

In his San Diego Superior Court lawsuit, Jonathan Smith charges that Sea World and Harcourt Brace Jovanovich "negligently and carelessly owned, maintained, trained, inspected, controlled, supervised, located, transported and placed said killer whales," thereby exposing him to serious injury.

The suit alleges that Sea World officials concealed the "dangerous propensities of killer whales" from Smith and assured him it was safe for him to participate in the dramatic shows though he had no formal training.

Other charges against the park and its corporate parent include fraud, battery and the infliction of emotional distress. The lawsuit, the first to be filed by an injured trainer in San Diego, names Sea World, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich and 35 unidentified individual defendants and seeks unspecified damages.

Jackie Hill, a Sea World spokeswoman, said park officials have not seen the lawsuit and have no comment.

Smith, a 21-year-old business major at Point Loma Nazarene College, was injured during a performance a year ago today when two killer whales seized him in their jaws and repeatedly dragged him 32 feet to the bottom of the pool. After about 2 1/2 minutes, during which he was smashed against the floor of the tank, Smith escaped. He was hospitalized for nine days with bruised kidneys and ribs and a 6-inch laceration on his liver.

At the time, there was scant media coverage. One brief newspaper account quoted former chief trainer David Butcher, who was fired in December after another trainer was seriously injured, as saying, "These guys were playing and got a little carried away and bumped into Jon."

In an interview Thursday, Smith said he vividly remembers the experience that led to his co-workers' calling him Jonah. "I remember it crystal clear," he said. "I think there came a point where I may have thought, 'This is it, I'm going to die.' "

Smith now works as a leasing agent for SoCal Development. He said he has continuing medical problems as a result of his injuries.

"Not only have I suffered physically, I think to an extent I have suffered emotionally as well," Smith said. "I am still recovering. . . . I'm not up to 100% physical shape or near that yet."

Smith said he was not suing to recover money for medical bills--worker's compensation paid the hospital tab--he just wants to prevent anyone else from suffering the same way.

In discussing Sea World's decision to resume having the trainers swim with the whales, he said: "I'm not going to say they're wrong, and I'm not going to say they're right. I just don't want to see anyone get hurt again and have to go through what I went through."

Meanwhile, Sea World of San Diego President Robert Gault said that animal trainers who in December were prohibited from entering tanks alongside the park's giant killer whales could be back in the water by the end of the month.

Trainers were ordered out of the tanks at parks in San Diego, Ohio and Florida in December, when William Jovanovich, chairman of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, pledged that trainers would "never again enter" the pools.

Newly formulated safety procedures could allow trainers at Sea World in San Diego to return to killer whale tanks late in March, when the park begins a yearlong 25th anniversary celebration with a new killer whale show, according to Gault, a longtime Sea World executive who became president of the San Diego park in November.

However, "there's no sense of urgency, and there's no schedule" for getting trainers back into the tanks, Gault said Thursday. "But we are interested in doing it in a relatively short period of time."

Banned After Accidents

Sea World banned trainers from entering the water with the whales after the park revealed that San Diego trainers had been involved in 14 accidents from August to December, some of which produced severe injuries.

Sea World's San Diego president, Jan Schultz, chief trainer Butcher, and marine biologist Lanny Cornell were fired in the wake of those accidents. Schultz, a 17-year veteran at Sea World, subsequently sued the park, alleging breach of contract and breach of good faith. He is seeking unspecified damages.

During a rare press conference at the San Diego park Dec. 8, Jovanovich told reporters he thought trainers should "never again enter" the whales' pools, either during training or performances.

However, Jovanovich also acknowledged that Sea World executives believed that a permanent ban was "too Draconian."

When trainers return to the water, they will do so in a severely restricted manner, Gault said.

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