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SeaWorld joins trainer's family in fight to keep videos out of public eye

By Emanuella Grinberg, CNN
Animal trainer Dawn Brancheau was killed last month at SeaWorld Orlando.
Animal trainer Dawn Brancheau was killed last month at SeaWorld Orlando.
  • Judge grants SeaWorld's request to join family's lawsuit restricting access to footage
  • Dawn Brancheau's family wants to prevent release of videos, photos related to her death
  • Brancheau died after killer whale pulled her underwater in front of onlookers at Shamu Stadium

(CNN) -- Security cameras were rolling when a killer whale at SeaWorld's Florida park grabbed a trainer by her hair and pulled her underwater, leading to her death.

Now SeaWorld and the family of Dawn Brancheau are fighting to keep videos and photos related to her death out of the public eye.

A Florida judge on Thursday granted a request from SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment to join in a lawsuit filed last week by Brancheau's family seeking to prevent the release of the footage, which was captured at SeaWorld's Orlando, Florida, park on February 24.

Brancheau was interacting with an orca named Tilikum when the animal grabbed her ponytail and pulled her underwater in front of shocked onlookers at Shamu Stadium. She died from "multiple traumatic injuries and drowning," the Orange County Sheriff's office said.

Portions of the incident were captured on two cameras at the park -- one that shows a view from under water and another from that park's Sky Tower, according to the family's complaint, which was filed last week.

"The underwater view does not show Mrs. Brancheau until after she had entered the water. The overhead camera was not aimed at the scene until after the incident had begun," the complaint states.

"Significantly neither camera shows what occurred in the moments prior to and including Mrs. Brancheau being pulled into the water and offer no insight into the cause of this tragic event."

Brancheau's family filed the complaint against the Orange County Sheriff and the District Nine Medical Examiner's Office, who have possession of the footage.

Circuit Court Judge William Kirkwood granted a temporary injunction of the release of the footage, noting that the sheriff's office filed a notice with the court stating it had no position on the matter. The medical examiner's office also filed a notice of no objection to the Brancheau family's complaint.

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In a motion filed Monday, SeaWorld claimed it has an interest in the pending litigation because it is the exclusive owner of the footage. If possession of the videos is not controlled, the motion further claims, "it is almost a certainty that they will be made publicly available on the Internet," causing SeaWorld to lose its exclusive right to the video.

Video: Attack video public record?

"Further, SeaWorld's interests are generally aligned with the Plaintiffs' interests, and SeaWorld, as the former employer of Mrs. Brancheau, seeks to assist Plaintiffs in protecting their privacy interests," the motion states.

SeaWorld also expressed concern that members of the media will be able to gain access to the videos if they become part of an investigative file with law enforcement.

In fact, Florida's broad laws regarding access to public documents creates a great likelihood of such a possibility, said CNN legal analyst Lisa Bloom.

"As a general rule, matters of a police file are public record, and the media has access to contents of a police file. Most mainstream media are not going to broadcast someone being killed or someone's remains, but it's a matter of having that access to decide how to use it," Bloom said.

"Law enforcement files have to be released in Florida, so the media has a very strong argument not only under federal First Amendment laws but also under Florida access laws," Bloom said.

The Brancheau family's lawsuit marks the second time this month that a family has asked the courts to intervene in the release of footage depicting dead loved ones.

Earlier this month, another family made a similar appeal to the courts involving the release of photos depicting dead loved ones. The family of slain hiker Meredith Emerson last week asked a Georgia judge to issue an order preventing the release of crime scene photos depicting her nude and dismembered body. A reporter on assignment for Hustler requested the photos for a story he was doing, according to the adult magazine.

A judge granted a temporary order in the case preventing the photos' release pending a hearing on the matter.