Often, nobody wins in court except the lawyers. But once in a while, taking on an adversary in court can be rewarding. The Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus thinks so. Its opponent was The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, who took a litigious gamble and lost.
After 12 years of litigation, ASPCA Friday agreed to a $9.3 million settlement to Feld Entertainment, parent company of the Ringling Brothers circus
The ASPCA sued Feld in 2000 for alleged violations of the Endangered Species Act. Feld filed a racketeering suit in 2007 against ASPCA and other groups. Two years later, Feld won a dismissal of the ESA case. Its claims for litigation abuse and racketeering will continue against the remaining defendants: Humane Society of the United States, the Fund for Animals, Animal Welfare Institute, Animal Protection Institute United with Born Free USA, Tom Rider (more on him in a moment), and the attorneys involved.
Feld chairman and CEO Kenneth Feld said in a release, “These defendants attempted to destroy our family-owned business with a hired plaintiff who made statements that the court did not believe. Animal activists have been attacking our family, our company, and our employees for decades because they oppose animals in circuses. This settlement is a vindication." (http://www.feldentertainment.com/Press/PressRelease.aspx?id=62237)
The ASPCA made it clear that the settlement doesn't admit any liability or wrongdoing.
"'The Court decided the underlying Endangered Species Act case filed by the ASPCA on the issue of standing, and never ruled on the merits of the elephant abuse allegations. In fact, this litigation has stopped being about the elephants a long time ago. 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. 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,' stated ASPCA President & CEO Ed Sayres." (http://www.aspca.org/Pressroom/press-releases/122812)
The fiscal year 2012 balance sheet shows ASPCA to be a $12 million operation, so a $9 million settlement isn't chump change. (http://www.animalhumanesociety.org/aboutus/annual-report)
Feld said discovery in the initial 2000 lawsuit uncovered more than $190,000 that animal rights groups and lawyers paid to an individual, Tom Rider, a former Ringling Bros. employee who served as the "injured plaintiff" in the suit against Feld. The case was dismissed in 2001 but reinstated in 2003. It went to trial in 2009 and Feld won in federal court, which found Rider to be a "paid plaintiff" who was not harmed by any alleged animal cruelty. (http://www.feldentertainment.com/Press/PressRelease.aspx?id=62237)
Animal rights activists are a constant PR issue for Feld. For example, Los Angeles will consider in early 2013 joining six other Southern California cities to ban elephants from performing in circuses. “'The treatment of elephants in traveling circuses is one of the crueler practices, and it’s time for us to stand up for them,' said Paul Koretz, the City Council member who sponsored the ban. He predicted that once Los Angeles outlawed circus elephants, other communities would follow." (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/26/us/circus-elephant-ban-considered-in-los-angeles.html?_r=2&)
How does a company that believes it is doing all the right things the right way take on animal advocates that use cute pictures of kitties, puppies, and even elephants? Feld produced a website on the litigation, ww.ringlingbrostrialinfo.com. It's an outstanding information source for reporters, stakeholders, and LA City Council members if they'll take the time to research the issue.
This site is well worth checking out if you are into crisis communications and if you want an example of being open, even during litigation. There's background on the case, a list of court filings, facts on Feld's animal care, and updates that offer a spectrum of issues beyond the immediate case.
To its credit, ASPCA's newsroom page posts the organization's response to the settlement, as excerpted above. Yet I remain in awe of Feld's openness even while participating in a court battle. I expect the other animal rights defendants and Rider will settle soon.
I'll close with an example of what Feld is up against in the PR wars. Note the emphasis on baby elephants and human families and the effective use of active verbs and adjectives. This is from PETA's website:
"In the Ringling Bros. circus, elephants are beaten, hit, poked, prodded, and jabbed with sharp hooks, sometimes until bloody. Ringling breaks the spirit of elephants when they're vulnerable babies who should still be with their mothers. Unsuspecting parents planning a family trip to the circus don't know about the violent training sessions with ropes, bullhooks, and electric shock prods that elephants endure. Heartbreaking photos reveal how Ringling Bros. circus trainers cruelly force baby elephants to learn tricks, and it's not through a reward system, as they claim...." (http://www.peta.org/issues/animals-in-entertainment/circuses.aspx)