TAMPA, Fla. – A former boat captain and dive master for The Florida Aquarium has filed a multi-faceted lawsuit against the non-profit corporation that employs approximately 240 people. The lawsuit includes an “opt-in” class action for allegedly not paying overtime and also accuses the organization of “whistleblower retaliation.” The Plaintiff is James Cairney who was employed from March 17, 2017, through October 23, 2019.
On October 11, 2019, Cairney was conducting a T-boat tour when he realized the boat’s engine was overheating and risked fire onboard. Rallying crew members on the tour with him, he found they lacked basic Coast Guard skills necessary to handle boat tour emergencies, including the ability to operate fire extinguishers. Cairney led the boat and its tourists to safety, but filed a complaint against Douglas Pace, Senior Captain of Marine Operations because once ashore, it was discovered the boat’s emergency alarms had been disabled. Cairney believed it was Pace who disabled the alarms.
Cairney filed complaints with his supervisor, Ms. Hough and Occupational Safety and Health Manager, Bailey Watson, claiming Mr. Pace had created a dangerous condition by disabling the boat’s alarms, and that Florida Aquarium itself had endangered all the passengers on the boat by manning it with untrained, inexperienced crew. Cairney cited “46 CFR Sub-part E – Preparations for Emergencies” as violated in the incident.
But on October 19, Tim Stripling, Director of Marine Operations, suspended Cairney from boat operations while an investigation was begun on the cause of the boat’s engine damage. Cairney still worked, however, as a divemaster. As with Watson, Cairney complained to Stripling about violations and the potential danger caused by Pace’s disabling of the boat’s alarms.
But Stripling allegedly ignored Cairney’s complaints. By October 23, Cairney was terminated.
His history, according to the lawsuit, consisted of two “counsels,” one for “insignificant” damage to a boat while docking and one for over-fueling. The incidents combined did not result in any warning to Cairney that his job was in jeopardy.
The flip side of Cairney’s lawsuit is an accusation of non-paid overtime addressed under the lawsuit’s “Collective Actions Allegations,” which claim Florida Aquarium was in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Allegedly, Cairney’s five-day workdays started at 7:30 a.m., but he was told not to clock in until 8:00 a.m., and he was not paid daily for a lunch hour, which is insinuated he never took. It is demanded that Florida Aquarium address non-payment of overtime for any employee, current or former, for the past three years, who steps forward for the collection of their pay losses under the lawsuit’s “opt-in” class action.
Several attempts were made to contact members of Florida Aquarium’s media staff and consultants, as well as Roger Germann, CEO and K. Tyler Hill, an attorney on Florida Aquarium’s Board of Directors. One response was received, which was from media contacts, indicating the individual was under quarantine due to COVID-19.
Cairney’s attorneys are Jason W. Imler and Gary L. Printy, Jr. of Printy and Printy, P.A., Tampa. The Free Press will report on this story as it develops.