SeaWorld and two former executives on Tuesday agreed to pay more than $5 million to settle federal fraud claims that they misled investors about the negative impact the 2013 documentary "Blackfish" had on business.
The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filed the complaint in federal court in New York as well as the proposed settlements, which are subject to court approval. The SEC's complaint alleged SeaWorld and former CEO James Atchison made misleading and false statements or omissions in SEC filings, earnings releases and calls about the documentary's impact on the company's reputation and business from December 2013 to August 2014.
During the first three months of 2014, Atchison sold stock as part of a trading plan he had entered into before that period, allowing him to avoid losses of almost $740,000, according to the complaint.
In August 2014, SeaWorld for the first time made a filing with the SEC that revealed the company was facing declining attendance following the movie's release. The company's stock price plummeted by a third and SeaWorld's stock was downgraded by analysts, causing an $830 million loss in shareholder value, according to the SEC complaint.
"The defendants should have known that the 'Blackfish' effect, if and when such occurred, would be material to investors," the complaint said.
Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, "Blackfish" chronicled the life of Tilikum, an orca that killed a SeaWorld trainer during a performance in Orlando in 2010.
In a statement, SeaWorld said the company neither admits nor denies the allegations under the settlement.
"The company is pleased to have resolved this matter and to continue to focus on delivering superior guest experiences, world-class animal care and rescuing animals in need," said the statement from corporate communications director Travis Claytor.
Online court records didn't show attorneys for Atchison or Fred Jacobs, SeaWorld's former vice president of communications.
Under the settlement proposal, SeaWorld would pay a $4 million penalty, Atchison would pay more than $1 million for a penalty and pay-back and Jacobs would pay $100,000 in pay-back.