A judge rejected a request by the corporation owned by Chinese billionaire Richard Liu to be removed from a lawsuit filed by a University of Minnesota student who claims Liu raped her in 2018.
Hennepin County District Judge Edward Wahl declined the motion to dismiss JD.com from the litigation, in which Liu is also individually named as a defendant. The company, similar to Amazon, is one of China’s two giant online retailers.
An attorney for JD.com argued that the company should not be implicated in the woman’s accusations because the sexual contact occurred off company premises and on Liu’s own time. Liu has maintained that sex with the woman was consensual, and he was never charged in connection with the allegation.
In his ruling issued Monday, Wahl declared that “it is difficult to determine when defendant Liu is ‘on duty’ and ‘off duty,’ ” as a CEO, observing “the determination is significantly more difficult for someone identified as a CEO and founder of an international corporation” compared to an average worker.
Peter Walsh, an attorney for JD.com, said that the ruling was “not unexpected” and that they expect to prevail once more evidence is admitted.
“Courts often conclude, as the court did here, that they cannot dismiss claims without the benefit of additional facts,” Walsh said. “The judge specifically stated that he was not making any factual findings and that it was simply ‘premature’ to rule in JD.com’s favor.”
The woman, Jingyao Liu, a Chinese undergraduate at the U who is no relation to Liu, has alleged Richard Liu got her drunk at a business networking party he hosted in August 2018, then sexually assaulted her in her apartment.
Liu was arrested by Minneapolis police, then released. After an investigation, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman declined to file criminal charges because he did not believe he could convince a jury of Richard Liu’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
Wahl concluded that JD.com’s attorneys did not provide sufficient information to conclude that the company should not be held liable, and more evidence was needed to reach a determination.
Richard Liu’s Chinese name is Liu Qiangdong. He is the 40th richest man in China and has a net worth of $9.6 billion, according to Forbes Magazine.
He was attending a special business doctoral program at the Carlson School of Management at the U for some of the wealthiest executives in China when the incident occurred.
Jingyao Liu, who was 21 at the time of the alleged assault, was asked by a Carlson School dean to volunteer during a week in which the Chinese executives were attending the school.
Wahl was not asked by Liu’s legal team to dismiss the case altogether, a motion expected to come later.
The company had argued that it could not be held liable for the acts of an employee and that the alleged assault did not occur when CEO Liu was on the job. Jingyao Liu’s attorneys say the company bears responsibility because it was part of an uninterrupted chain of events that began with a corporate-sponsored party and continued with a drive to her apartment in a company-hired van.
Wahl noted the woman’s claims that Richard Liu told her that she could “be a woman just like Wendi Deng.” Deng is corporate magnate Rupert Murdoch’s ex-wife and was employed by Murdoch’s firms. “The mention of such name arguably implies business opportunities,” Wahl wrote.
Joseph Daly, professor emeritus at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, described Wahl’s decision as “quite significant” and a likely turning point in the lawsuit, which was filed last year. Daly, who is not involved in the litigation, predicted it would spur JD.com and Richard Liu to settle rather than subject themselves to drawn-out depositions and more publicity.
However, Jingyao Liu’s attorney, Wil Florin, said his client does not want to settle. “Our client is intent on going to trial,” he said. “It’s hardened her resolve to get this case decided by a jury.”