Exit the Clowns, Enter the Elephants

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It’s not everyday that we’re able to report good news for our readers, but the tail end of 2012 did indeed bring something to celebrate – particularly if you’re a fan of elephants.  On Dec. 28 a decade-long lawsuit came to end when the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) agreed to pay a $9.3 million settlement to Feld Entertainment, Inc., which produces Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus.

The good news? Feld Entertainment was the defendant, not the plaintiff. About nine years ago, ASPCA and several other activists groups sued Feld under the absurd claim that Ringling was abusing its elephants. All too often in a case like this the targeted company settles the matter out of court by writing an elephant-sized check. That’s because fighting the case could lead to a precedent-setting ruling that endangers the entire industry. But not this time.

The linchpin of the activists’ case was a former Ringling employee, whose participation was supposed to give the case standing. The employee claimed that Ringling’s abuse of the elephants caused him an “aesthetic or emotional injury.” Unfortunately for ASPCA and its allies, they were paying the employee — $190,000 over eight years — which pretty much rendered his views on the case suspect.

As the federal court wrote in its ruling: The former employee “is essentially a paid plaintiff and fact witness who is not credible, and therefore affords no weight to his testimony regarding the matters discussed herein, i.e., the allegations related to his standing to sue.”

And for good measure, the court rejected that any of the other parties in the case had standing to sue: “because the organizational plaintiffs have not established an injury in fact, traceable to FEI’s actions that can be redressed by the Court, the organizational plaintiffs have no standing to sue under Article III of the United States Constitution.” In other words, take your paid witness and phony charges and quit wasting the court’s time – and compensate Feld for nearly 10 years of frivolous litigation while you’re at it.

However, while $9.3 million might seem like a good sum for any company, it’s less than half of what Feld has spent defending itself from this onslaught of litigation, according to the Wall Street Journal. As numerous studies and government reports have dutifully shown, Ringling exceeds all federal regulations in its treatment of its animals. In fact, there’s a good case to be made that releasing the elephants back into the wild as the radical animal-rights clowns want – where they would be prey to the poachers – would only lead to their eventual extinction.

And so ends on a positive note a case that might have led to the eventual extinction of that mainstay of childhood fascination – the circus. Tort lawyers are only too happy to take up the causes of extreme activists when they see a corporation in the cross hairs. Had the court ruled differently, it would have set a dangerous precedent that likely would have seen any entity housing animals sued out of business – other circuses, zoos, theme parks, etc. That’s a lot of money just waiting to be divvied up.

A party to the case probably summed up the entire fiasco best when it wrote after the settlement was announced: “this litigation has stopped being about the elephants a long time ago.” The party? ASPCA.

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