Circus family trial erupts into profane fight

May 17, 2011 - 7:28 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — The feud between the scions of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus erupted into profane shouting inside a federal courthouse Tuesday over an attorney's repeated use of the wrong courtesy title.

The boiling animosity between circus CEO Kenneth Feld and his sister, Karen, led U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle to post a security officer in the courtroom during their civil trial and to order plaintiff and defense teams to leave her court separately to avoid another confrontation.

That didn't stop verbal sparring between her brother's attorney and Karen Feld on the witness stand.

"We can't have a boxing match here," Huvelle interjected, one of the several times she tried to curb the fighting and move the case along during its seventh day of testimony.

Karen Feld is suing her brother for $110 million because she says his security guards assaulted and injured her when they forcibly removed her from their aunt's shiva, or Jewish memorial service, in September 2007. Kenneth Feld is countersuing for trespass. He says she tried to sneak into an off-limits room and launched into an obscenity-filled tirade when guards barred her way and then escorted her out.

Karen Feld has said her brother has long been hostile toward her because he was afraid she would reveal unflattering details about their family that would hurt the wholesome reputation of their entertainment business empire. But Kenneth Feld denied that he was concerned she'd reveal their family secrets, which he testified were covered long ago in news articles and were being revived in news coverage of the court case.

"I think everything unflattering is out there, and it's obviously coming out this week," he said during a brief appearance on the witness stand Tuesday.

Karen Feld has portrayed a family full of dysfunction, particularly on the part of their father, Irvin Feld, who bought the circus in 1967 and passed it on to his son while she said she was virtually disinherited. Karen Feld has said her father physically abused her and forbid her from ever mentioning her mother after she committed suicide when Karen was 10 and Kenneth was 9.

She testified that her father believed women didn't belong in business and should get married, and arranged for Karen to wed a young man who lived in their apartment building when she was a college student. She testified she was able to call off the engagement after she walked in on her father and her betrothed having sex during a family vacation to Europe.

That drew a rebuke from Huvelle, who has ruled that no one's sexuality is at issue in the case.

"If you don't obey my rulings, there won't be a case, all right? Is that clear?" Huvelle admonished Karen Feld.

The courtroom tension escalated when the never-married Karen Feld grew angered by defense lawyer Matthew Kirtland's repeated reference to her as "Mrs. Feld." She abruptly stormed out of the courtroom yelling back to Kirtland that Mrs. Feld — her brother's wife, Bonnie — was sitting in the back of the courtroom.

"You know my name by now. I'm the plaintiff!" she said.

She returned to the trial after about 20 minutes, but Kirtland later told Huvelle that Karen Feld had confronted him, her brother and her brother's wife as they departed the courtroom for lunch. Kirtland said Karen called them vile names and lunged at him in a threatening way. He asked the judge to post a security officer behind Karen Feld in court and to hold her in contempt, but Huvelle said she couldn't issue a contempt citation because she didn't witness the confrontation. She did direct that a security officer sit in the back of the courtroom for the remainder of the trial and told the two sides to stay apart physically.

Asked by Kirtland why she was so angry over the title "Mrs.," Karen Feld testified it was "the most offensive thing in the world" he could call her and that he was doing it intentionally to disrespect her. She said she found it offensive because she finds her sister-in-law offensive and because she's an independent businesswoman.

"If I wanted to be a Mrs., I would have gotten married," she said.

Karen Feld has testified she suffers from brain injuries that cause seizure-like episodes that lead her to yell out uncontrollably. Kirtland accused her of using the seizures as an excuse for bad behavior.

Lawyers have said they hope to wrap up testimony this week so the jury can head to deliberations Monday.

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Nedra Pickler can be followed at http://twitter.com/nedrapickler