Twelve years after animal rights groups sued the producer of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus over the treatment of elephants, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has agreed to pay $9.3 million to exit the case.
The settlement announced late last week ended the ASPCA's participation in litigation against circus producer Feld Entertainment Inc. Feld also agreed to dismiss the ASPCA from a racketeering lawsuit the company is pursuing against the animal rights groups involved. In settling, the ASPCA did not admit to any wrongdoing.
The ASPCA and other animal rights groups unsuccessfully pursued claims against Feld in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia beginning in 2000, accusing the company of mistreating its Asian elephants. U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan entered a judgment against the animal rights groups in 2009 and a three-judge appellate panel upheld that ruling in October 2011. The settlement doesn't include any other organization involved in the litigation.
"My impression is ASPCA wanted to get out of this case because they appreciate the exposure that they faced, particularly in this RICO case," said Fulbright & Jaworski partner John Simpson, lead counsel for Feld. The settlement amount, he added, "recognizes an evaluation of the risk that they knew they had moving forward."
In a statement, the ASPCA President and CEO Ed Sayres noted that Sullivan never ruled on the underlying allegations of elephant abuse. The group was represented by Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler.
"After more than a decade of litigating with Feld Entertainment, the ASPCA concluded that it is in the best interests of the organization to resolve this expensive, protracted litigation," said Sayres. "We are glad to put this matter behind us so we can focus most effectively on our life-saving work, preventing cruelty and improving the welfare of animals."
The settlement agreement (PDF) was signed December 14. The parties filed a formal stipulation of dismissal with the court on December 28.
The animal rights groups' case came down to whether they had standing to sue. Sullivan found that the one individual plaintiff, Thomas Rider, who had worked with the elephants, wasn't credible and had been paid to serve as a plaintiff and fact witness. Without Rider, the other plaintiffs couldn't claim a direct injury that could be addressed by the court. The parties have been litigating over attorney fees since the summer.
Feld sued the animal rights groups in D.C. federal court in 2007, alleging violations of federal racketeering and other state laws in their pursuit of the elephant litigation. In July, Sullivan denied a motion to dismiss the case, although he did dismiss a few individual claims. Sullivan is weighing whether to allow the animal rights groups to pursue an appeal now; litigants are rarely given permission to pursue an appeal before a case has concluded.
Simpson said Feld would be open to settlement talks with the remaining parties, but that there are none at the moment. "My door is open, but I haven't heard from them," he said.