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