Settlement Reached in 14-Year Circus Lawsuit

A $15.75 million settlement has been reached between the producers of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and a collection of animal rights groups that had made accusations against them. The producers, Feld Entertainment, had accused the Humane Society of the United States and other groups of having paid a former employee of the circus to say that the company had abused the circus elephants in its care. The statements would have meant that Feld had violated the Endangered Species Act. The animal rights groups agreed to pay Feld the sum after 14 years of litigation.

Feld had filed a civil racketeering case against the animal rights groups, and discovery was ongoing when the settlement was reached. Prior to the settlement a judge had already awarded Feld attorney’s fees as a penalty for claims that were referred to as “vexatious,” “frivolous” and “groundless.” This type of penalty had never before been imposed on a plaintiff in an Endangered Species Act case, but when the law was written it did include a provision for the penalty. The same judge that awarded the defendant also threw out the animal abuse lawsuit itself, calling it “groundless.”

The original claim against the company was filed in the year 2000, and accused the circus of improperly removing Asian elephants from their natural habitat. Though the case was dismissed, it was reopened in 2003 so that the accusing employee could attempt to file a suit for damages against the circus. It was during the original suit that it was discovered that the animal rights groups had paid the former employee, Tom Rider a sum of $190,000 to testify against the circus. It was that evidence that caused the RICO lawsuit to be filed against the animal rights organizations.

The most recent settlement brings the total that Feld has received in awards and settlements in the case to $25 million dollars, and serves as an expensive embarrassment for the animal rights groups that made the allegations against the circus producers. Had the RICO case proceeded and Feld had prevailed, the groups could have been required to pay up to $75 million in penalties.

The settlement of the RICO case brings the lengthy case that began with the false allegations against the company to an end. Though this case was specifically filed as a claim of a violation of the Endangered Species Act, it also raised important issues about defamation and other entertainment law issues. Organizations in the entertainment industry have the right to legal representation that protects their rights and their public image. If you are in the field of entertainment and facing defamatory claims or accusations, the South Jersey and Philadelphia law firm of Bochetto & Lentz are available for consultations regarding protecting your legal rights.

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