San Diego sues SeaWorld over more than millions in back rent

SeaWorld has argued payments were waived because theme park was shut down for months at a time during the pandemic; city officials say rent was deferred

A logo for SeaWorld San Diego.

The city of San Diego sued SeaWorld Thursday for allegedly failing to pay more than $12.2 million in rent, late fees, and interest.

The lawsuit follows a pledge to move forward with litigation if SeaWorld did not pay back rent and other penalties by Wednesday.

SeaWorld has argued the payments were waived because the theme park was forced to shut down for months at a time during the pandemic, while city officials say rent was only deferred.

The couple says the attack lasted several minutes and was witnessed by dozens of other people, including SeaWorld employees, reports NBC 7 and Telemundo 20's Tania Luviano

A representative for SeaWorld said the company did not have anything to add regarding Thursday's filing other than its previous publicly released statement on the matter:

"While as a matter of policy we don't comment on potential litigation, we have enjoyed a long relationship with the city and remain hopeful that we can resolve this matter. We have partnered with the city for nearly 60 years — conducting thousands of animal rescues, numerous recycling drives and many other events. We also have paid more than $146 million in lease payments to the city of San Diego since 2010. We appreciate all the city has done and we look forward to addressing this situation."

The complaint filed in San Diego Superior Court states SeaWorld has underpaid rent between Jan. 1, 2019, and April 30, 2022.

Three months ago, the city of San Diego gave SeaWorld until Sep. 6 to pay rent. 

According to the San Diego City Attorney's Office, SeaWorld's minimum rent payments total $10.4 million annually, plus a 3% surcharge under the terms of its lease.

"Although some 800 organizations have similar lease agreements with the city, SeaWorld is the only major city lessee that has remained in default of its rent obligations since the pandemic began," according to a city attorney's office statement.

For more than 50 years, SeaWorld has enjoyed a prime spot along San Diego’s Mission Bay and a good relationship with the city. That may be changing. NBC 7's Audra Stafford has the details.

The San Diego City Council voted 8-0 in May to authorize litigation.

"The city has a right to expect more from a 60-year partnership that has proven quite lucrative for SeaWorld," said San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott. "City taxpayers — many of whom are legitimately struggling to recover from the global pandemic — should not have to absorb SeaWorld's debts and liabilities. We believe a court of law will agree."

SeaWorld, which is headquartered in Orlando, Florida, owns 12 theme parks around the world, employs thousands of people, and welcomes millions of visitors. Last year, they generated $1.7 billion in profits. 

Chris Workman is an attorney who has handled many property rights cases but isn't involved directly in this dispute. He said the matter is a contractual dispute that will likely have to be resolved by a judge. 

"As a result of COVID, businesses of all sizes ran into the exact same problem that SeaWorld is experiencing, which was business was stopped and rents continued to accrue," Workman said. "And then on the other side of the equation, landlords experienced the same thing that the city is experiencing. Tenants were not bringing in income and they had no way to pay it."

Workman noted that given the nature of the tenant in this case, it wouldn't be easy for the city of San Diego to pursue any sort of eviction action. 

Copyright CNS - City News Service
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