SeaWorld’s Civil Lawsuit Delayed as Federal Investigation Proceeds

It has been quite a few months since updates have been made public regarding two ongoing legal battles that SeaWorld Entertainment is fighting, and it appears that one of those cases will continue to wait its turn. A judge has ruled that an ongoing federal criminal investigation will once again take precedence; the class action civil lawsuit the company is facing will see another delay.

SeaWorld’s legal difficulties stem from accusations that they had knowingly and intentionally mislead shareholders about the effects of the film Blackfish, an anti-captivity documentary which focused on the company’s performing orca Tilikum.  SeaWorld investors began a civil suit over the claim, which was granted class action status last year. Earlier in 2017, the federal government became involved. The U.S. Department of Justice’s Chief of Fraud Section Sandra Moser filed a motion to intervene in the civil case and begin a criminal investigation. This lead to the first delay in civil depositions, so that information from the civil suit would not negatively impact the criminal case against SeaWorld.

Last week’s delay — the third to date — is for similar reasons. U.S. District Judge Michael Anello from the Southern District of California wrote, “The government has a strong interest in protecting and maintaining the integrity of its criminal investigation, and a stay would prevent premature disclosure of criminal discovery materials.”

“Although the public has an interest in the resolution of civil cases such as the one here, that interest pales in comparison to the public interest as a whole in unraveling [a] criminal . . . scheme and punishing those responsible for that scheme,” said Sandra Moser of this most recent delay.

A substantial amount of the witnesses and evidence from the criminal case will overlap with that of the civil suit. The government has requested depositions for seven former and current SeaWorld Entertainment employees which includes former Chief Executive Officer Jim Atchison, former Chief Financial Officer James Heaney, former Chief Parks Operations Daniel Brown, former vice president of corporate communications Fred Jacobs, and chief financial officer Marc Swanson.

Both Jim Atchison and Fred Jacobs were among those whose internal emails were made public which implied knowledge of Blackfish‘s impact well in advance of SeaWorld’s acknowledgment.

A trial date of July 8th, 2019 has been proposed for the civil suit.

Source: The Orlando Sentinel

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