Last month, just as the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States, Netflix released an eight-part documentary called Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness which gave us some jaw-dropping insight into some outrageous litigation twists and turns involving a mullet-wearing guy out of Oklahoma — especially when it comes to mediation.
Joe Exotic the Tiger King, known to his parents as Joseph Maldonado-Passage (né Schreibvogel; born March 5, 1963), was convicted in the United States District Court for the District of Oklahoma on 17 federal charges of animal abuse and two counts of murder for hire, involving a plot to murder rival Carole Baskin, the CEO of Big Cat Rescue. Joe Exotic was the owner and operator of the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park (a.k.a. G. W. Zoo) in Wynnewood, Oklahoma (pop. 2207). Mr. Exotic claimed to be the most prolific breeder of tigers in the United States. An American president once said, “those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.” No saying is more true.
Mr. Exotic’s legal troubles started with a trademark infringement lawsuit in 2013 in Florida. That year, Big Cat Rescue sued Mr. Exotic’s zoo for the unauthorized use of the Big Cat Rescue logo and other violations of intellectual property. Ultimately, Mr. Exotic entered into a series of consent judgments essentially agreeing not to infringe any longer, and a judgment was entered against him for over $1 million. That stung because Mr. Exotic’s zoo annual revenue was only about $650,000. Bankruptcy was in the air.
In a smart move, the parties entered into mediation to work things out. Both sides worked over 10 hours in settlement talks in downtown Oklahoma City that would have stopped collection actions. Reportedly, the parties reached an agreement: Mr. Exotic would pay only modest monthly payments toward the $1 million judgment. This would allow him to keep the zoo open but as a condition he could no longer offer cub petting and would stop breeding big cats.
Here is a teaching moment – everyone left that mediation without a signed settlement agreement. Big cat mistake. We all know the dangers of letting parties leave a mediation without a signed written agreement. Instead, everyone went home, and Ms. Baskin’s lawyers later sent a draft of the settlement agreement to Mr. Exotic’s attorneys, thinking the deal was struck. Don’t leave without a signed deal.
When there was no response, the mediator reportedly set up a conference call with Mr. Exotic and his attorneys to address the hold up. Next big cat mistake: Mr. Exotic had his then friend Jeff Lowe join the call without notifying the mediator, and things quickly unraveled. The discussed settlement terms fell apart. Don’t bring guests to a mediation that are deal-breakers.
The parties returned to litigation, and Ms. Baskins and her attorneys went after everyone that received assets from Mr. Exotic in what they alleged were fraudulent transfers. Litigation floodgates opened.
The federal court Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) has 100’s of pages of court documents about this multi-year litigation. The parties spent a fortune on attorneys. Mr. Exotic could not get out of this mess. His life would only get worse. In a slight twist on President Kennedy’s inaugural statement, there is a saying “He who rides a tiger is afraid to dismount.” Which is to say, once you find yourself in a dangerous situation, getting out of it can be even more dangerous. Nevertheless, he should have dismounted that tiger during mediation, signed the settlement agreement, and put this behind him.
Joe Exotic is now serving a 22-year sentence in federal prison.