Circus Heir on the Hook for Cost of Sibling Squabble

This photo from the website of the now-defunct Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus shows Kenneth Feld (center-left) surrounded by members of the Clown College founded in 1968 by his father, Irwin Feld (center-right). Kenneth took over the company after Irwin died in 1984.

WASHINGTON (CN) – A federal judge shot down a circus mogul’s request for more help from his insurer in covering the cost of a protracted and bitter legal battle with his estranged sister.

Kenneth Feld, who inherited the now-defunct Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus from his father, had asked the court to reconsider a September 2016 ruling that put his insurers on the hook for $2 million of what it took to defend against assault claims from his sibling, Karen Feld.

Noting that “the show goes on in the courts,” even though the circus has since closed its doors, U.S. District Judge John Bates told Feld on Monday that his last option is to appeal.

“He cannot have a second bite at the apple in this court,” the ruling states.

Declining to credit Feld’s evidence of disputed facts, Bates accused the heir of cherry-picking.

“His dispute is with the linguistic choices the court made in explaining its prior opinion, not with the substance of that decision,” the 12-page ruling states. “Such arguments do not convince the court that he is entitled to the relief he seeks.”

A jury rejected Karen Feld’s claims that her brother had security guards assault her during their aunt’s funeral, but Kenneth had already racked up $4.5 million in legal fees by that point.

Bates ruled last year, however, that Feld’s attorneys had reached an agreement on hourly rates with Feld’s personal liability insurers, the Fireman’s Fund Insurance Co.

According to that agreement, the insurance company owed Feld only $2 million for legal fees.

In a motion for reconsideration, Feld disputed the conclusion that an agreement on rates existed. Bates concluded Monday, however, that Feld’s arguments “rest on a misunderstanding of both the law and what the court actually decided.”

Moreover, Feld failed “to present new facts or law that would merit reconsideration,” the opinion continues.

The court had previously identified “undisputed evidence” that a contract agreeing to hourly rates existed in the form of phone conversations and an email that memorialized the rates agreed to over the phone.

But Feld said the prior ruling was inappropriate at the summary-judgment stage. A jury, he said, should decide whether a contract existed.

Bates disagreed, asserting that only factual disputes – not legal disputes – cannot be resolved by summary judgment.

“That question — whether the undisputed text of an email demonstrates agreement as to material terms and an intent to be bound, and hence a contract — is a question of law, not of fact,” the ruling states.

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