A Hennepin County district judge has concluded that, based on evidence presented so far, a jury could decide in an upcoming civil trial that Chinese billionaire Richard Liu sexually assaulted a University of Minnesota student in Minneapolis four years ago.
In a 35-page memorandum unsealed this week, Judge Edward T. Wahl also detailed why he believes there is sufficient evidence for a jury to find the large internet retail company that Liu founded — JD.com — liable for compensatory damages if it decides he assaulted the student.
At this stage, Wahl is required to draw conclusions based on evidence most favorable to the plaintiff — the student who is suing Liu, said Joseph Daly, professor emeritus at Mitchell Hamline School of Law.
The Hennepin County attorney's office found insufficient evidence to criminally charge Liu. The civil trial is scheduled to begin Sept. 29.
"The judge is saying that there is a good chance the jury could find Mr. Liu liable for both compensatory damages and punitive damages if it's shown" the plaintiff did not consent, Daly said.
The student, Jingyao Liu — no relation to the defendant — was 21 in 2018 when she was invited to Origami, an Uptown restaurant where Richard Liu was hosting a party for a group of Chinese executives participating in a doctoral program based at the U's Carlson School of Management. The program caters to China's richest businesspeople.
The plaintiff alleges that Richard Liu got her drunk, took her to her apartment and raped her. He was arrested by Minneapolis police and later released. Jingyao Liu, now 25, graduated from the U and attends graduate school at Washington University in St. Louis.
Wahl issued his decision in late July and filed the memorandum with his reasoning Sept. 2, but it wasn't unsealed until Monday.
"We are pleased with the court's ruling following nearly a day-long hearing approving Jingyao's claim for punitive damages from Richard Liu and denying JD.com's second effort to dismiss the lawsuit," said Wil Florin, an attorney for the student, in a text message.
Diane Doolittle, an attorney for Richard Liu, minimized the impact of the memorandum. "At this pretrial stage, the court was not permitted to weigh the competing and convincing evidence against the plaintiff and was required to accept the plaintiff's version as if it is true under Minnesota law," she said in a statement.
Wahl found that JD.com, a company similar to Amazon, could be sued for compensatory but not punitive damages. Peter Walsh, an attorney for JD.com, called the denial of the plaintiff's motion for punitive damages "a significant win for the company and confirms that JD.com engaged in no wrongdoing."
Walsh added that even if the plaintiff prevails at trial — "and JD.com is confident that she will not" — the company's financial exposure will be "very limited."
Still, Wahl determined a jury might find that JD.com shares some of the blame, given Richard Liu's position as CEO: "The facts demonstrate that a reasonable jury could conclude that Richard Liu was acting in the scope of his employment." But that is "a question for the trier of fact," the judge added.
Richard Liu's attorneys argue that Jingyao Liu made contradictory statements to police — that she first denied she was raped before insisting that she was. But Wahl noted that her initial statements "were not made under oath" and that she offered "a reasonable basis for why she changed her statements," that she "was frightened and did not want to get in trouble."
But Wahl also wrote that Jingyao Liu's lawyers "had not provided sufficient evidence to demonstrate that JD.com explicitly or implicitly ratified Richard Liu's sexual assault" so should be exempt from punitive damages.
In a separate order also issued Monday, Wahl denied a motion by Jingyao Liu's attorneys to bar the defendant from arguing that she was seeking "hush money" when she spoke by phone with Richard Liu's attorney, Jill Brisbois, shortly after the alleged assault. Wahl wrote that Richard Liu's attorneys have agreed they "will not claim to the jury that the plaintiff committed extortion."
In her statement, Doolittle said: "We are confident that when the jury can consider all of the evidence and learn of Ms. Liu's many inconsistent and contradictory claims, it will reject her claim of sexual assault as baseless."
Responded Florin: "If the claim was 'baseless,' it would been dismissed by the court long ago."