Updated at 2:30 p.m. Dec. 29, 2015
A federal judge has dismissed a series of lawsuits against SeaWorld, but left the door open for another suit on the same topic — whether visitors to its parks were defrauded by false advertising over killer whales and their care.
Judge Catherine Ann Bencivengo in San Diego shot down various arguments by lawyers for Holly Hall of Temecula and others.
“Because the complaint does not allege (let alone with any specificity) that any of the named plaintiffs saw and relied on SeaWorld’s statements about its treatment of whales when purchasing their tickets, the named San Diego plaintiffs lack standing to bring claims on behalf of the putative San Diego Class,” Bencivengo said in her 33-page ruling.
Issued Wednesday, the ruling said that by the suit’s reasoning “any consumer would have standing to sue any company that fails to disclose product ingredients or components, or business practices that could cause that consumer to regret patronizing that business.”
For example, she wrote that if someone bought something from a business and learned it treated its workers poorly, that consumer would have standing to sue “simply by alleging that the company omitted information about its treatment of its employees, and that if the company had not omitted this information, the consumer would not have done business with the company.”
“The whales here are analogous to a company’s employees,” Bencivengo wrote. “That the whales themselves do not have standing to contest their conditions of captivity does not change the analysis or give plaintiffs any more standing to assert omission claims than they would have to sue SeaWorld for omitting information about SeaWorld’s treatment or compensation of its human employees.”
SeaWorld had no duty to disclose the details of the health and conditions of the whales in captivity, the judge said.
“Plaintiffs’ entire premise appears to be that no standards of care would be acceptable because killer whales should not be held in captivity at all,” she wrote. “Yet, plaintiffs knew that SeaWorld held killer whales in captivity when they purchased their tickets.”
The case, filed in March, consolidated three lawsuits seeking refunds on behalf of years of visitors to SeaWorld parks in San Diego, San Antonio and Orlando.
In a statement Monday, SeaWorld hailed “this significant decision … which could signal the ultimate end of this litigation.”
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“While this litigation was another in a series of efforts to ultimately phase out zoos and aquariums, SeaWorld and other science-based organizations are part of the solution, not the problem,” the Orlando-based company said. “Orcas at SeaWorld are healthy and thriving.”
Jared Goodman, legal director of the animal-rights PETA Foundation, said Tuesday: “While this particular lawsuit has faced a setback because of a procedural issue, the ruling does not clear SeaWorld of any misrepresentations regarding its cruelty to orcas.”
Besides Hall, other plaintiffs were Paul Danner of Florida, Valerie Simo of California, Joyce Kuhl of South Carolina and Elaine Browne of Texas.
The judge noted that the overwhelming majority of the 91-page page suit consisted of allegations of
various statements allegedly made by SeaWorld during the last couple years, including posters, securities filings, its website concerning its killer whales along with pages of allegations arguing that orcas in captivity at SeaWorld’s parks are not “happy and healthy.”
Besides acknowledging their right to appeal, Bencivengo said the plaintiffs have until Jan. 25, 2016, to file an amended lawsuit.
In its blog, SeaWorld said: “Through conservation work, rescue efforts and significant contributions towards advancing scientific understanding of orcas and other marine mammals, SeaWorld is a leader in protecting and preserving these species.
“Through our work with scientists, conservation leaders, and the government, SeaWorld is ensuring that all animals in human care are treated with the dignity and respect they require and deserve.”
Lawyers for the plaintiffs didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.