Jurors reject circus family’s shiva lawsuit claims

WASHINGTON (AP) — A bitter assault case between members of the family behind the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus ended Tuesday with jurors deciding that neither side proved its case.

The jury rejected Karen Feld’s $110 million claim that her brother, circus CEO Kenneth Feld, had his security guards assault her at a memorial service for their late aunt. They also rejected Kenneth Feld’s counterclaim that his sister trespassed at the 2007 shiva by shouting anti-Semitic obscenities that disrupted the service.

Karen Feld, a 63-year-old Washington resident, said she has a history of brain injuries that cause seizures. She testified she couldn’t control what she was saying when she went into one of her episodes at the penthouse apartment where her aunt’s memorial service was held and where she lived with her brother as a youth. She said her brother’s guards harmed her by dragging her out of the service and she eventually needed to have a tumor removed because of their assault and battery.

But the jurors did not agree after a two-week trial in which three security guards contradicted her version of events.

Kenneth Feld, a 62-year-old resident of Tampa, Fla., smiled broadly and hugged his lawyers in response to the verdict. He said afterward he was happy with the outcome, but he felt it was a shame their feud had to go so far.

“It never should have come to this,” Kenneth Feld told reporters on the courthouse steps, his first comments to the media in the case. “There’s no way I ever wanted this to be in the courtroom.”

The case is the culmination of decades of estrangement between the Feld siblings, the only children of former circus owner Irvin Feld. Irvin Feld died in 1984 and passed his ownership of Feld Entertainment and most of his wealth to his son, leading Karen Feld to file her first lawsuit against her brother. She won a settlement from that case and reached an agreement with her brother earlier this year in another suit over their uncle’s estate.

This time Kenneth Feld fought his sister all the way through a trial full of drama. On the witness stand, Karen Feld described a tragic family behind the Big Top: She said both her parents physically abused her; her mother committed suicide when she was 10 and her brother 9, and years later she walked in on her father having sex with her fiance. Kenneth Feld gave a much kinder portrayal of their family and broke down into tears when telling of the death of their aunt Shirley, who raised the siblings after their mother’s death.

“Since Aunt Shirley’s shiva was desecrated, this is now probably the closest thing to closure that we will ever have,” Kenneth Feld said after the verdict.

Karen Feld left the trial shouting in anger twice after being repeatedly referred to as “Mrs. Feld” although she’s never been married. These disruptions lead U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle to post a court security officer in the courtroom. Karen Feld said hearing the erroneous courtesy title and subsequently being surrounding by courthouse security guards triggered seizures, and she was under medical care and unable to return to the courtroom for the final four days, including the verdict.

But she responded in an email to The Associated Press:

“I respect the jury’s decision, but I’m disappointed that Kenny got away with bad and malicious behavior at my expense yet one more time,” she wrote. “He’s nothing but a bully with millions of dollars to hire thugs to assault me and PR pros to detract from the real issues and spin the story his way. I had hoped that the verdict would provide me with a sense of personal safety but that’s not the case.”

The jury found that Karen Feld was imprisoned by the private security guards her brother hired, but they also ruled the action was justified.

The guards testified that Karen Feld never told them she was suffering from a seizure or any other medical condition, but began yelling profanities when they tried to stop her from entering a back bedroom. Kenneth Feld’s attorney argued that she wanted to get into the room because she believed it contained jewelry and other memorabilia she thought were hers, but Karen Feld said she was heading to a bathroom to try to ward off the impending seizure.

“Ken Feld’s body guards acted properly based on the situation and what they knew,” jury foreman Chad Capule said in an interview outside the courtroom. He said the multiple days of medical expert testimony showed that she clearly had a brain injury and wasn’t responsible for her actions at the shiva, but didn’t prove that the guards’ handling of her caused her to need brain surgery.

Capule said the most dramatic moments in the courtroom — Kenneth Feld’s emotional testimony and Karen Feld’s angry departure — didn’t influence the jury, saying: “That had nothing to do with the evidence.”

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