McLEAN, Va. - The parent company of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus has received a nearly $16 million settlement from a number of animal-rights groups, including the Humane Society of the United States, ending a 14-year legal battle initiated over unproven allegations of mistreated elephants.
Vienna-based Feld Entertainment said Thursday's settlement of the long-running case in the U.S. District Court in Washington is a vindication of its animal care, while the animal-rights groups said the settlement ends a legal quagmire that had spiraled well beyond the core question of how the circus treats its elephants.
Kenneth Feld, CEO of the privately held company that also produces Disney on Ice and other shows, said in an interview that the animal-rights groups abused the legal system, and the settlement allows the company to focus on producing family entertainment.
"The fact that we could get dragged through this for 14 years ... I think it is very clearly a public vindication for our company that these people really misused the judicial system," Feld said.
In 2012, a judge said the complaint filed by a consortium of animal-rights groups was frivolous and forced Feld to spend millions in legal fees.
The initial lawsuit was filed in 2000 by a former Ringling barn helper who was later found to have been paid at least $190,000 by the animal-rights groups that helped bring the suit, making him what the judge called "essentially a paid plaintiff" who lacked credibility and standing to sue.
The initial lawsuit alleged that elephants were abused. After several pretrial rounds through the appellate courts, a judge rejected the abuse claims following a 2009 trial.
Meanwhile, in 2007, after Feld uncovered evidence that the plaintiff had been paid to levy the allegations against Feld, the company filed a racketeering claim against the groups involved.
Wayne Pacelle, CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, said his organization's involvement in the case was peripheral, and that Feld was highlighting the Humane Society's role in the settlement to score political points. He pointed out his organization was never a plaintiff in the original lawsuit filed against Feld. The Animal Welfare Institute and the Fund for Animals are among the other groups included in the settlement.
As for the settlement, he declined to say what portion of it was paid by the Humane Society but said he expects it to be covered by insurance and ultimately that "we are not in the end going to give a dime to Feld."
Feld's lawyer, John Simpson, countered that the Humane Society was "integrally involved" in the lawsuit, including a $2,000 payment to the barn helper who brought the frivolous suit.
Simpson said the allegations of abuse were unfounded and hurtful to the workers who care for the animals.
"It's like accusing a kindergarten teacher of child abuse," he said.
The $15.75 million from Thursday's settlement is in addition to a $9 million settlement paid by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in connection with the case.
The $25 million roughly correlates to the amount of money Feld spent defending itself in court, though it technically is not considered a payment for legal fees.