An attorney representing a massive Chinese internet company argued Tuesday that it should be released from a portion of a lawsuit filed by a University of Minnesota student who claims she was raped by its billionaire founder.
Liu Jingyao, 22, sued both JD.com and CEO Richard Liu last year, alleging the company was complicit in an alleged sexual assault in her Minneapolis apartment in August 2018. The Hennepin County Attorney's Office declined to charge Liu following an investigation.
Liu, whose Chinese name is Liu Qiangdong, founded JD.com, an e-commerce site similar to Amazon. Forbes magazine lists his net worth at $7.8 billion, making him the world's 40th richest person. His age is listed at either 45 or 46.
In the lawsuit, Jingyao alleges Liu, who was attending business classes at the university's Carlson School of Management, encouraged her to attend a dinner at a restaurant in uptown Minneapolis. She claims he got her drunk, then took her home in a chauffeured SUV and raped her in her apartment. Liu has said the sexual contact was consensual.
Peter Walsh, a Minneapolis attorney representing JD.com, argued before Judge Edward Wahl that the company should not be held responsible for the alleged rape, noting that the lawsuit does not allege JD.com committed any illegal conduct.
The lawsuit does, however, accuse Liu and JD.com of both false imprisonment and sexual assault for the time she was with him in the SUV. Walsh indicated he would be challenging those two elements later.
The alleged rape in her apartment is denied by Liu's lawyers. But whatever happened, Walsh said, the encounter did not occur in the workplace, which he said is essential to implicate the company under Minnesota law.
"No Minnesota case to address the 'work-related limits of time and place' element has extended that concept to circumstances close to what is alleged here," he wrote in an accompanying brief.
However, Wil Florin, an attorney representing Jingyao, said the alleged rape should be seen as a part of a continuum of the company's involvement that day. He said the company hosted the dinner at a restaurant for executives where the young woman was given liquor. The meals and additional liquor were paid for with a company credit card by JD.com employees and assistants to Liu, Florin said.
He said she and Liu were driven in a chauffeured SUV, paid for by JD.com, to her apartment. He said an assistant to Liu, who is a JD.com employee, had accompanied them in the vehicle, and was told by Liu to wait while he entered her apartment.
Florin cited a remark he claims Liu made to his client while Liu was lying naked on her bed shortly before he raped her: "You can be a woman just like Wendi Deng."
Deng, who is famous throughout Asia, met Rupert Murdoch, the media mogul, in 1997 when she was working for one of Murdoch's affiliate companies in Hong Kong. They married in 1999, and she advanced in his companies. They divorced in 2014. Florin said the Deng comment was tantamount to a "job offer" to work at JD.com.
Walsh disputed the implications of the remark about Deng.
"I can't make heads or tails out of the Wendi Deng references," he said.
Wahl said Florin was referring to her as a business leader.
"I don't think it's a reasonable inference," said Walsh.
Florin disagreed. "There is a reasonable inference. There is liability for quid pro quo."
About a dozen young Chinese men and women, including students and professionals, attended Tuesday's hearing in support of the woman. Several flew in from New York, San Francisco and San Jose.
Randy Furst • 612-673-4224 Twitter: @randyfurst