Felds Go To Court
The scions of the family entertainment empire built on the Ringling Bros. & Barnum and Bailey circus brought their decades-old feud into a federal courtroom Monday and immediately impugned each other’s motives during a 2007 memorial service for the woman who reared them.
Karen Feld is suing her brother for $110 million of his fortune because she says his security guards beat and groped her as they forcibly removed her from their Aunt Shirley’s shiva service at the Washington penthouse where they grew up together. She says the assault at her brother’s direction exacerbated a brain injury and injured an arthritic knee, leading to surgery on both.
An attorney for Kenneth Feld, who now owns Feld Entertainment, responded that his sister’s claims are bogus and suggested she had more interest in grabbing their aunt’s jewelry than mourning her death. Kenneth Feld’s attorney Matthew Kirtland said Karen Feld desecrated the shiva by trying to sneak into a back bedroom, then exploding in a rage when her brother’s security guards tried to stop her. Kenneth Feld, who lives in Tampa, Fla., has countersued his sister for trespassing.
“Karen Feld lives in a fantasy land,” Kirtland told the eight jurors and one alternate in opening arguments.
U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle told jurors to allow up to three weeks for the trial. This proceeding is the culmination of a long-running and bitter estrangement between the Feld siblings, who sat just a few feet apart in the courtroom avoiding each other’s gaze. They are the only children of Irvin Feld, who bought the circus in 1967 and died in 1984, passing the company to his son.
“This is a case where a chosen son took brutal advantage of a neglected daughter,” said Karen Feld’s attorney Steven Oster. “His hostility toward his sister has been the defining part of his relationship toward her.”
Oster said the hostility stems from a 1990 article in a now-defunct business magazine about the Feld family that quoted Karen Feld and publicly exposed Irvin Feld’s homosexual affairs and his wife’s suicide. Oster told jurors his client’s suit may seem like a “case amongst people who have it all,” but he described a tragic childhood for Karen Feld in which she was physically abused by both parents, brought up by her aunt and uncle after her mother’s death and then virtually cut out of her father’s will.
Kirtland said the will split the family after Karen Feld successfully sued her brother and their Aunt Shirley to get more of the inheritance. He said while Kenneth Feld, his wife and three daughters remained close to Shirley after that suit, the family no longer associated with Karen Feld.
But Kirtland said Kenneth Feld still let his sister know when their aunt was dying and told her she was welcome to mourn with them. He said while Kenneth Feld, his wife and daughters were at Shirley Feld’s hospital bed when she died, Karen Feld was at the penthouse “thinking about jewelry” of Shirley’s that she felt entitled to _ particularly an engagement ring and a split heart diamond necklace that matches one Karen Feld owns.
Oster said Karen Feld had long suffered from a brain injury and that during her aunt’s shiva she began to feel seizure-like symptoms coming on. She says her toy poodle, which was with her at the shiva and sat quietly on her lap in the courtroom, can detect an oncoming seizure and must remain with her always. Oster said she began to retreat to a back bathroom, but was grabbed from behind without warning by a guard who was “laying in wait” for her in her father’s old bedroom.
“They created, in essence, a trap for Karen,” Oster said. He said two guards then dragged her from the apartment and at Kenneth Feld’s direction to “get rid of her,” dragged her to the building’s elevator, beat her on the way down and threw her and her dog out the front door.
Oster showed the jury an enlarged photo of the bruising a guard’s grip left of her arm and played part of the 911 call that Karen Feld made describing an assault by guards. “You need to arrest these guys,” she said.
Kirtland said Karen Feld was not injured and instead she kicked one guard in the legs and groin. She said as the rabbi called mourners to the living room for the religious service, she “made a beeline” for the back bedroom where her aunt Shirley stored possessions.
Kirtland said a guard asked her not to enter, and she exploded in a rage, throwing a glass of wine on one guard and shouting obscenities and anti-Semitic remarks. “The mourners are shocked. The service stops. The rabbi doesn’t know what to say,” Kirtland said.
Oster acknowledged that Karen Feld yelled things she’s not proud of, but he said the brain injury causes her to lose control of her speech, become volatile and unpredictable. “It’s as if she has a demon inside of her,” Oster said.
Kirtland said Karen Feld’s account can’t be trusted because she admits her condition leaves her confused and with severe memory problems. He said the security guards escorted her into the hall, where Kenneth Feld came out to try to calm her until she threw a punch at him. He said the guards then escorted her out, with one holding her by the arm to defend himself as she kicked at him. He showed a hospital record indicating she was in the emergency room 92 minutes before being discharged with orders to take Tylenol.
Kirtland said Karen Feld has a pattern of becoming uncontrollable when she doesn’t get her way, and cited subsequent confrontations in which she was thrown out of a concert and an airport but claimed she did nothing wrong.
“It’s all make-believe, ladies and gentleman,” Kirtland said, sounding a little like an announcer at the circus.