Defamer Or Tiger Dad? Virginia Jury Rules Hong Kong Tycoon Defamed Son

There is a fascinating defamation case out of Fairfax Virginia this week. A Fairfax jury has found Hong Kong financier Eric Hotung guilty of defamation and awarded his son $1.2 million. It is an award that seems difficult to square with the conventional definitions of defamation as well as the reaction of some of the jurors.

Hotung’s grandfather was the richest man in Hong Kong who was knighted twice by the Queen. His father founded the Hong Kong gold and silver exchange. In the mid-1990s, Hotung purchased the home of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy for $5.88 million and his wife lived there with his eight children (not far from my house in McLean). The problems arose when Hotung trashed talked one of his sons in Hong Kong. Since they had the McLean home, the son sued in Virginia.

The comments sound a lot like the opinion of a hard “Tiger Dad.” Hotung made statements like “He is not my son!”; “Judging by his habits, he can’t possibly be a relative of mine”; and “These kinds of people cannot be members of the Hotung family.” The comments occur in the context of a colorful family history. Eric Hotung had a relationship with Winnie Ho, the daughter of another wealthy Chinese family that were looked down upon by the Hotung elders. While she was later forced to marry another man, Eric resumed the relationship after graduating from Georgetown. However, in 1959, he married Patricia Shea. In May 1959, however, Winnie Ho gave birth to his son, Michael. She later had a daughter by him as well.

Michael was raised in the U.S. but eventually moved to Hong Kong. Because Winnie Ho was reportedly being blackmailed by her brother, Eric Hotung publicly acknowledged being his father in 2001.

However, Michael Hotung was accused of a notorious lifestyle and in December 2009 his celebrity wife demanded a divorce. When media called Hotung to comment on this son, he let loose stating

“He is not my son!” . . . Go ask his mother whose son he is! I don’t know him! … I have never done a DNA test — he could be the president’s son for all you know!… I don’t know who this Michael Mak is…Judging by his habits, he can’t possibly be a relative of mine. None of my family members are like this…No one in my family treats his wife and children so badly…I am a gentleman, so I do not acknowledge him as my son.”

Michael Hotung sued and hired Akin Gump for the litigation. While Eric Hotung insisted that he was not speaking literally, Michael’s legal team succeeded in a two-day trial that it was taken as literal and closed off opportunities for the kid. Frankly, the DNA comment seems to suggest an actual rather than a rhetorical point. Yet it is hard to see how this truly harmed Michael’s reputation.

The jury awarded $300,000 on each of the final two counts, and $300,000 in punitive damages on each – which will have to be reduced to $250,000 due to the state’s low cap on punitive awards.

What is striking about the article below is the statement by a juror that the jury did not really see the defamation but felt locked in by the law governing such “insulting words.” Va. Code Ann. 8-630 (1957), provides:

“All words which from their usual construction and common acceptation are construed as insults and tend to violence and breach of the peace shall be actionable.” This provision is treated by Virginia courts as “[a]n action for insulting words under Code, 8-630 is treated precisely as an action for slander or libel, for words actionable per se” with one exception not relevant here. Carwile v. Richmond Newspapers, Inc., 196 Va. 1, 6, 82 S. E. 2d 588, 591 (1954).

Putting aside the relevance of the statute, the common law allows ample space for opinion. In this case, a reasonable person could conclude that he was denying parentage. Michael argued that being a Hotung in Hong Kong is huge besides portraying him as illegitimate. Is this really something that should be actionable in your view?

Source: Washington Post

15 thoughts on “Defamer Or Tiger Dad? Virginia Jury Rules Hong Kong Tycoon Defamed Son”

  1. interesting to see such strident opinions from people who know nothing about the case other than a journalist’s untested summary of what happened

  2. Mike Appleton: The verdict will survive the appeal if, and only if, there is a political necessity to let it survive the appeal. And in the case that there is (some judge’s sore toes, something like that), it will survive with an unpublished decision that will be so idiotic that it will jar the nerves of anybody who isn’t already totally familiar with Virginia Appellate Policies.

  3. This is indeed a peculiar verdict. I fail to see how a denial of paternity can be classified as legally defamatory, at least based upon the facts of this case, much less as slander per se. I also believe that the Virginia “insult” statute is unconstitutionally vague and violative of the First Amendment. Finally, where are the damages? Even if damages are presumed under Virginia law in this instance, they are negligible at best. A $1.00 verdict would have sent the proper message. I’ll be very surprised if this verdict survives post-trial motions, and I’ll be shocked if it survives an appeal.

  4. The “crime” was committed in Hong Kong, the harm was in done Hong Kong. Virginia because that’s one residence? All the lawsuits are because of pride, ego and waaay too much money.

  5. MJM – given that this particular law dates back to the gilded age I guess we have somehow struggled through all the over-legislated, over-regulated impediments for generations. My we are a resourceful people.

    And the only good case for Junk Judy would be severe laryngitis which she caught from Nancy Graceless

  6. Law in Virginia – an oxymoron.

    Check out the various US Supreme Court cases that ended up there on certiorari from Virginia — enter the Commonwealth, leave the Constitution at the border. Abandon hope all who enter.

  7. Though the courts generally allow everyone their day in court, this case stands as a monument as to how ridiculous the U.S. judicial system really is.
    America is the most over-legislated and over-regulated society in the world.
    It seems that everything is against the law or soon will be and anyone can sue everyone for anything or nothing at all. This would have been a great case for Judge Judy !!

  8. an odd cycle given that the trial took place in VA. I just finished reading a book containing the diary of a slave owning plantation scion just prior to the Civil War. One of the fascinating aspects I had not known of before was that suing anyone and everyone was a very large part of daily life for these sick pustules. They sued at the drop of a hat & often in retaliation for earlier suits. Sounds like the these folks are on the same track.

  9. I bet you a quarter that akin didn’t take this one on contingency…….It has reversible error because of the jurors statement in my opinion…..

  10. Remember that when analyzing a defamation claim, all statements must be read together and taken in context. Even if “I have never done a DNA test,” when read in isolation, sounds like an assertion of fact, the surrounding statements show that “he is not my son!” really means “he does not deserve to be my son and I refuse to treat him as a son.” I don’t think this collection of statements can be reasonably interpreted as an assertion of fact that the two are not biologically related. And even if they could be so interpreted, the statements lack defamatory meaning. In other words, who cares who the guy’s father is? This case should have been dismissed prior to trial.

  11. “They found Eric Hotung had not committed intentional infliction of emotional distress, but did commit defamation and use of “insulting words,” a law Berlik said was passed some time ago to discourage dueling.”

    to discourage dueling? Daddy Hotung’s first few sets of lawyers…. Daddy Hotung was fined $55,000 in sanctions for his intransigence.

    The Hotung/Ho saga of two super wealthy families suing each other for all sorts of things, a messy divorce, son suing father, etc. Sounds like a terrific reality/comedy/tragedy show.

    With so many lawyers involved and such deep pockets this is likely to drag out for years. If only they had put their egos in the pockets and used mediators.

  12. I might consider it a compliment to have a guy who despised me as a person declare that I was not his offspring. What’s wrong with this *&^#%$@ plaintiff — uh oh, I mean what’s wrong with this very nice, upstanding, honorable, perfect man — (Last thing I need is a judgment against me in Fairfax Virginia) —

    So he’s now got: “THIS IS MY FATHER AND I AM HIS SON AND HE NEEDS TO GIVE ME MONEY.”

    Hmmmmmm…

    Something about Fairfax.

    Fairfax is the court that caused MY SON to repudiate HIS FATHER and change his name. He would just LOVE to hear such words from his father, and they would be the opposite of slander.

  13. Mike Spindel, No one would ever sue anywhere else if the good ol’ USA is an option. This is the Mecca for litigation.

  14. On thel surface the award seems ridiculous, but perhaps it was the Judge’s fault in the charging of the jury. It certainly doesn’t seem like defamation to me, but then I don’t know what could ruin a person’s standing in Hong Kong. if the argument is that it would lower his status in Hong Kong wouldn’t that be the place to have sued?

    Something is missing from this picture. What I can say for sure though is that the Hotung family has some very confusing relationships and interactions.

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