TAMPA, Fla. (CN) - A tiger exhibitor that lost a circus contract due to a handler's revoked license cannot seek damages for government inspectors' alleged failure to point out the violation, a federal judge ruled.
The Hawthorn Corporation is a licensed animal exhibitor under the Animal Welfare Act, which was enacted to ensure humane treatment and care of pets and animals used in research and exhibitions. Dealers and exhibitors of animals such as Hawthorn operate under a license from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Hawthorn hired Lancelot Kollman in 2012 as a trainer for its 16 white tigers, which the company exhibits during circus shows.
Even though Kollman's USDA exhibitor's license had been revoked due to a procedural default, Hawthorn believed that, as long as the handler operated as its employee, he could train and present Hawthorn's tigers, according to the company's complaint in Federal Court.
In January 2013, Hawthorn took its tigers to Tampa to exhibit them during a Soul Circus performance, for which the circus company had agreed to pay Hawthorn $672,000, according to the lawsuit.
However, when Soul Circus checked Kollman's status with the USDA, animal care inspectors said Kollman was not allowed to handle or present Hawthorn's tigers because his license had been revoked.
Soul Circus then rescinded its contract with Hawthorn, which suffered income loss and incurred substantial expenses such as freight costs, additional handlers, sawdust and 7,000 pounds of meat to feed the tigers, the 2013 lawsuit said.
Hawthorn accused USDA inspectors of negligence, claiming they had a duty to detect and report violations such as Kollman's operating without a license so that the violations could be corrected.
It claimed USDA inspectors knew Kollman was the company's tiger trainer and handler since 2012, as they had inspected Hawthorn repeatedly during Kollman's employment and had raised no issues about his license status.
The USDA inspection reports, which did not mention any compliance issues, lulled Hawthorn into thinking that Kollman could exhibit the tigers under Hawthorn's license, the lawsuit said.
U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich dismissed the claims last week for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, finding that the United States could not be liable for plaintiff's reliance on government employees' misrepresentations or omissions.
As a licensed animal exhibitor, Hawthorn knew or should have known that a person whose license had been revoked, such as Kollman, could not exhibit or transport animals, according to the 26-page ruling.
Even if the United States could be held liable for its agency's misrepresentations, it would still be entitled to immunity because USDA inspections qualify as discretionary functions, Kovachevich wrote.
What's more, Hawthorn cannot pursue claims for interference with contract rights under the Federal Tort Claims Act. Since Hawthorn alleged that the government's negligence ended its contractual relationship with the circus, the court lacks jurisdiction to hear the claims, the order adds.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has accused Hawthorn repeatedly of Animal Welfare Act violations, such as failure to provide animals with proper veterinary care, nutrition, adequate space and humane handling practices. In 2013, PETA asked the government to revoke Hawthorn's license.
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