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The Five Biggest Legal Questions in “Tiger King”

June 05, 2020 (5 min read)

You can call the Netflix® true crime serial “Tiger King” a lot of things. It’s a story about society’s fascination with exotic animals and the price of keeping them in captivity. It’s a story about drugs, politics, arson, reality TV, suicide and murder. It even makes room for multiple May-December romances—some involving Joe Exotic, the eyebrow-ringed, firearm-toting, leopard-print-wearing, zookeeper at the center of the hit documentary.

If you tried to squeeze “Tiger King” into a genre, the most fitting is perhaps legal drama. The centerpiece of the story is, after all, the extended legal battle between Joe Exotic and the animal rights activist Carol Baskin, which makes Jarndyce v. Jarndyce look like an open-and-shut case.

(Warning: spoilers ahead.)

The show is not a courtroom documentary (at least in the manner of “The Staircase”, another Netflix show) but the litigation between the main characters, Joe and Carol, acts as a structural spine to the sprawling narrative. And if you believe federal prosecutors, the relatively mundane intellectual property dispute that started things also set in motion events that ultimately led to Joe hiring a hit man to kill Carol. That part of the story, too, ends in a courtroom. 

(A full analysis of this case is available here. Not a Lexis Advance® subscriber? Please click here.)

But for all the judicial goings-on in “Tiger King”, legal drama doesn’t feel like the appropriate label. There’s a lot of law, sure, but there’s not much drama in the cases. Joe loses every one in a rout. He folds in the intellectual property litigation. When he declares bankruptcy to avoid paying the judgment, Carol objects and wins. In his criminal case, the jury takes just three hours to convict him of the murder-for-hire plot (not to mention Endangered Species Act violations).

Even after the documentary aired, Joe kept losing. In an $89 million false arrest lawsuit he filed in March 2020 against a laundry list of defendants, Joe received a scathing rebuke from a magistrate judge, who called his claims “frivolous” and recommended tossing them.

As lawyers who watched “Tiger King” may have noticed, however, the show does give rise to some head-scratching legal questions. Here are five that might have stuck with viewers after watching the show and reading up its main players:

The Five Biggest Legal Questions in “Tiger King”

1) Did Joe really infringe Carol’s copyright?

The long-running litigation between Joe Exotic and Carol Baskin kicked off with three IP lawsuits. First came a trademark suit in 2011 (more on that below), and later two copyright actions. One of the copyright cases involved a picture of staff members at Carol Baskin’s Big Cat Rescue®, smiling while holding dead rabbits. The rabbits were going to serve as a meal for big cats at the sanctuary, but Joe Exotic used the image to suggest his nemesis was engaged in animal cruelty herself. He plastered the picture everywhere.

Joe settled the copyright case for $50,000—but was he in the wrong? The fair use doctrine allows criticism, commentary and parody of copyrighted works. Maybe Joe Exotic dressing up in a dead bunny costume and protesting outside the Big Cat Rescue park isn’t parody, but it’s difficult to argue that in his use of the picture, he wasn’t engaged in criticism and commentary. Which makes the copyright settlement a bit of a mystery.

2) How did Carol get a $1 million trademark judgment?

In his attempt to get under Carol’s skin—and mess with her Google™ results—Joe adopted a business name (Big Cat Rescue Entertainment) and imagery very close to that of Carol’s (Big Cat Rescue). So it’s no surprise that after two years of litigation, Joe Exotic settled out of that case.

It’s the amount of the settlement that’s shocking: $1 million.

Is there any way Carol Baskin could have proved trademark damages in the neighborhood of $1 million? We’ll never know. Regardless, the reason Joe Exotic agreed to such a large amount lurks in news reports from the time. In one of them, he admits that “he doesn’t plan to pay a dime to Big Cat Rescue.” Instead, Joe said way back in 2013, “I’m going Hollywood. They made me a star.”

3) Is there anything to Joe Exotic’s Endangered Species Act argument?

Joe Exotic wasn’t just convicted of hiring a hit man to kill Carol Baskin; he was also convicted of shooting and killing five tigers in 2017 in violation of the Endangered Species Act. On appeal, he claims that this is an unconstitutional ex post facto application of the law. Skepticism is warranted here. The appellate team is as flashy as Joe Exotic himself, and the law has not been changed since 2017. Still, it would be interesting to see this argument fleshed out.

4) How long does it take before you can declare someone dead?

Did we mention that Carol Baskin’s first husband disappeared more than 20 years ago, never to be heard from again? According to “Tiger King”, Carol had him declared as soon as she could, which, in Florida, was five years after his disappearance. As it turns out, that’s on the shorter end of the spectrum for the time that must pass before a missing person can be legally declared dead. Georgia is the shortest at just four years. Meanwhile, in Italy, you have to wait 20 years.

5) As a convicted felon, can Joe Exotic still run for president?

Maybe it hasn’t crossed your mind, but it has probably crossed Joe’s. He did it in 2016, and his fame has only grown since. Lucky for Joe, nothing in the U.S. Constitution prevents him from taking a run at the White House, even with a felony on his record (though he’ll have to find a new party, since his membership in the Libertarian party has been revoked). He can draw inspiration from Eugene Debs, the socialist who received nearly a million votes for president while campaigning from prison.