Universal settles lawsuit on Gru character’s ‘OK’ gesture

Universal Orlando has settled a discrimination lawsuit with two families who claimed employees dressed as Gru from “Despicable Me” used a hate symbol in photos taken with their young Black and Hispanic daughters.

Tiffiney and Richard Zinger, along with Geisy Moreno and Joel Rodriguez, said their children separately faced racial discrimination from workers depicting the movie franchise character at a resort hotel and theme park in February and March 2019.

In photos with the 6- and 5-year-old girls, whom court records refer to as J.Z. and H.R., the character can be seen holding its hand in an “OK” gesture. White supremacists have appropriated the signal in recent years to mean “white power.”

The families sued Universal in Orange County in June 2021 for more than $100,000 in total damages. They later moved the lawsuit to U.S. District Court, increasing their claims to over $75,000 for each plaintiff and suing Loews Royal Pacific Resort. Both girls’ parents claimed they suffered emotional distress and battery, alleging the performers also touched them without their consent.

Court records do not show the settlement’s terms in the case, which was closed Sept. 12. Settlement agreements often have confidentiality clauses that keep details of a lawsuit’s resolution private.

Lisa Riddle, an attorney representing the families, declined to comment this week. Earlier this year, she told Florida Politics the lawsuit aimed to ensure Universal properly trains and supervises its employees to prevent similar problems in the future.

Universal did not respond to questions. Spokesman Tom Schroder previously declined to comment on the lawsuit but told USA Today in October 2019 that the employee dressed as Gru in the Zingers’ photo had been fired and Universal was in contact with the family.

“We never want our guests to experience what this family did,” he said then. “This is not acceptable and we are sorry — and we are taking steps to make sure nothing like this happens again.”

A representative for Loews Hotels did not reply to questions. Records show the Zingers agreed to dismiss the company from the lawsuit in July.

The Anti-Defamation League, which tracks hate symbols, reports the “OK” gesture is “entirely innocuous and harmless” in most contexts, but it notes the signal has been claimed by white supremacists after a 2017 viral hoax on the website 4chan.

H.R.’s family claimed the character initially ignored the girl’s Spanish-speaking family while continuing to interact with English-speaking guests at the Universal Studios Florida theme park in February 2019. H.R.’s father said he had to beg the employee for a photo, in which he displayed the gesture.

The next month, J.Z.’s family said Gru placed the symbol on her shoulder, and also raised bananas above J.Z. and her mother’s heads, in photos taken during a character breakfast at the Loews Royal Pacific Resort.

Other people interacting with the performer were not treated the same way, they allege. Bananas are associated with the Minion characters in the “Despicable Me” movies.

J.Z., a Black biracial girl with autism, later wanted to use the photos for a school project but was “humiliated” when told she could not because of the hand gesture’s connotation, according to the lawsuit.

The families filed claims with the Florida Commission on Human Relations before initiating the lawsuit, alleging discrimination violating the Florida Civil Rights Act of 1992. Records show the commission concluded it could not make a reasonable cause determination in either case in August 2020.

Universal and Loews Hotels denied the allegations in court, including that the costumed characters showed a “symbol of hate” in the photos and that the employees involved lacked proper training or supervision. Universal said its employee training specifically includes instruction on character posing and warnings to avoid “questionable hand signals.”

Both Universal and Loews denied the families’ claims about touching, saying they consented to performer contact for photos.

Recently, Orlando-based SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment has faced similar discrimination allegations involving costumed performers at the company’s Sesame Place Philadelphia theme park. A Baltimore man filed a class action lawsuit in Pennsylvania in July, claiming his family and other Black visitors were ignored by performers that approached white guests.

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