A number of animal rights groups including the D.C.-based Humane Society of the United States ended their long-running litigation with Feld Entertainment this week by paying nearly $16 million to settle unproven allegations that Feld’s Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus was mistreating elephants.

Feld chief executive and owner Kenneth Feld said the verdict by the U.S. District Court in Washington ends the 14-year litigation and vindicated his circus’s treatment of the animals it uses in its act.

The settlement covers the legal costs incurred by Feld Entertainment defending the allegations. The company, which began decades ago in Washington and recently moved most of its operations to Florida, was represented by the law firm of Norton Rose Fulbright.

“Just to get this thing done, to settle this with all the parties, was a great relief,” Feld said in an interview. “The important thing is it’s behind us. We can focus on our entertainment business and on the welfare of all the elephants, here and in Sri Lanka and also at our Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida.”

The win by the privately held Feld comes as the company is recovering from a circus accident this month at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence, R.I. Nine acrobats were severely injured when rigging collapsed, causing them to fall 40 feet to the floor.

The company has not resumed the aerial act since the accident. Two of the nine have been released, but two reportedly sustained severe spinal injuries, according to news reports. The injured performers and their families have asked that no new information on their medical condition be released, according to a Feld Entertainment spokesman.

Feld called the accident “an absolute tragedy and devastating.”

“We’ve been in this business 144 years, and unfortunately from time to time, there are accidents,” he said. “This was pretty severe. Thank God all the young ladies will survive and we hope they will all fully recover. We are dealing with it.”

The initial lawsuit claiming the elephants were abused was filed in 2000 by a former Ringling circus barn worker who was later found to have been paid at least $190,000 by the animal-rights groups to back their charges.

A judge rejected the claims following a 2009 trial.

Feld subsequently filed a racketeering claim against the groups to recover legal costs.

Michael Markarian, president of the Fund for Animals said in a statement: “The court never ruled on the central question of the abuse of circus elephants in this 14-year-old case, and the groups and their lawyers decided to settle the cases and avoid incurring additional costs.”

Wayne Pacelle, president and chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States, said the settlement is covered by insurance and no donor money will go to Feld.

“But with the funds Feld is receiving, we urge the company to combat the killing of tens of thousands of elephants for their ivory,” Pacelle said in his statement. “An additional $15 million can save countless elephants, by putting more armed guards on the ground or by working to reduce demand in ivory-consuming countries.”