Remember the legal odyssey involving Feld Entertainment, owner of the Ringling Bros. circus, and a cabal of animal rights groups? If you don’t, here’s the summary: Animal rights groups sued the circus alleging elephant abuse and lost. The court concluded that their key witness was a essentially a “paid plaintiff and fact witness” who was “not credible.” Feld countersued under federal RICO statutes, alleging racketeering, fraud and witness bribery.
The second case is ongoing, but it is in the first lawsuit that there is news. The suit was dismissed in late 2009 after a trial, but the sides have since fought over appeals (which failed) and now attorneys’ fees. Last week, the judge ruled that the animal rights plaintiffs owe attorneys’ fees. The court hasn’t ruled how much yet, but Feld claims that its defense has cost more than $20 million, so it could be a hefty amount. The judge also had strong words, writing that the case brought by animal rights groups “was groundless and unreasonable from its inception” and that the key witness “lied about the payments” and that the “organizational plaintiffs also concealed the payments from FEI [Feld], in whole or in part, by providing misleading or incomplete information to FEI until after the Court granted FEI’s motion to compel complete information.” Read the full opinion for all the details.
The ruling does affect a Humane Society of the United States affiliate, the Fund for Animals. However, the ruling does not assign liability to the Humane Society of the United States, which was not a party in the litigation. (As a side note, according to this court exhibit, it appears HSUS sent four payments to a group identified by the court as a vehicle for paying the witness.)
The door is still open for HSUS to be held liable for attorneys’ fees, however.
According to the ruling, Feld’s Motion for Feesincluded an argument in a footnote that HSUS should be held liable for fees. But the judge found that this is not a proper method of argument and concluded, “FEI’s request to hold HSUS jointly and severally liable is DENIED WITHOUT PREJUDICE to refile at an appropriate time and in an appropriate procedural posture.”
There seems to be a good case to make, based on our reading of the merger between the Fund for Animals and HSUS. (Click here to view it.) We’re not lawyers, but section 1.3 states, “Subject to the conditions specified in this Agreement HSUS shall assume, defend, discharge, and perform as and when due, all lawful liabilities and obligations of Fund (the “Assumed Liabilities”) of whatever type or kind, including without limitation contingent liabilities whether known or unknown and whether asserted or unasserted.” The following section enumerates “excluded liabilities” and it only deals with the Fund’s real property in three states.