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Former Sea World Trainer Sues Over Injuries Caused by Whale

June 15, 1988|JANE FRITSCH | Times Staff Writer

A second former Sea World trainer has filed suit, alleging that injuries she suffered when a 6,000-pound killer whale landed on her and dragged her to the bottom of a tank were because of negligence and fraud on the part of the park and its parent company.

Joanne Webber, 26, charged in a lawsuit filed Tuesday in San Diego Superior Court that Sea World and its parent company, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, knew that the whales were "ferocious and dangerous" and were "likely to attack and injure human beings," but induced her to enter the pool by telling her the whales were "safe" and "gentle."

Webber's neck was fractured June 15, 1987, during a practice session when a whale leaped into the air above her, then landed on her "with the full force of 6,000 pounds, fracturing her neck and thrusting her underwater to the bottom of a 40-foot-deep pool," the lawsuit says. The whale had been forced "out of sequence" by another whale in the pool that was exhibiting erratic behavior, the suit says.

Trainers Returned to Tank

Webber's injuries were aggravated by Sea World personnel who delayed treatment, insisting that her wetsuit be removed at the park so that it would not be damaged by medical personnel who would try to remove it at the hospital, the lawsuit says.

A series of similar injuries last year prompted Sea World and Harcourt Brace Jovanovich to bar trainers from joining whales in the tanks for performances. But, after a five-month hiatus, trainers have been allowed back into the water this month.

A suit filed in March by ex-trainer Jonathan Smith is pending in Superior Court. Smith alleged that injuries inflicted by two of the whales during a show last year were caused by the negligence of the company. His suit says officials concealed the "dangerous propensities of killer whales" from him and assured him that it was safe for him to participate in the shows, even though he had no formal training.

Smith was injured during a March, 1987, performance 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 nine days with bruised kidneys and ribs and a 6-inch cut on his liver.

Webber, who returned to a job at Sea World after her health improved, went back on medical leave last week after Sea World officials requested that she either take an office job at the park or go back in the water with the whales, according to Paula Tupper, an associate in the law firm of Patrick R. Frega.

Her injuries included fractures of the first cervical vertebra, contusions of the skull and scalp, and bruises to the left arm and shoulder. After a year, two cracks in a vertebra in Webber's neck still have not healed completely, and she has lost 50% of the side-to-side motion in her neck, Tupper said.

'In Great Pain'

Webber was able to free herself and get out of the pool after the whale attack, Tupper said. Park personnel then allowed her to walk about 50 feet from the pool to an enclosure, where she was told to remove her wetsuit, Tupper said.

"In great pain" and unable to comply, the lawsuit says, she was "stripped of (the) wetsuit by Sea World personnel." Tupper added that Webber was told to dress and walk about 200 yards to a waiting ambulance.

Attempts to reach Sea World officials for comment were unsuccessful.

The lawsuit also names 35 unidentified defendants and asks for unspecified damages.

The defendants "well knew that killer whales had a dangerous propensity for attacking, ramming, dragging and smashing persons located in the pool," but concealed those facts, the lawsuit says.

They also knew that the whales were "capable of uncontrollable erratic behavior, aggression, and attack," but nevertheless placed a newly acquired and "known dangerous" male whale in proximity to female killer whales, thus increasing "the likelihood of erratic behavior and attack," the suit alleges.

Webber never would have gotten into the tanks if she had known the facts, the suit contends.

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