Samsung Elec chairman wins $4.9b court feud over family fortune

SEOUL (REUTERS) - Samsung Electronics Co Ltd Chairman Lee Kun Hee fended off a lawsuit by estranged family members demanding he hand over billions of dollars of shares in Samsung companies as a South Korean court ruled in his favour on Friday.

Mr Lee, 71, and Samsung Everland, a de facto holding company for the country's largest conglomerate, were defending three lawsuits by Mr Lee's relatives seeking nearly US$4 billion (S$4.9 billion) in assets in Samsung Life Insurance Co Ltd, which sits at the heart of the web of Samsung group shareholdings, and Samsung Electronics, the group's crown jewel.

The lawsuit was unlikely to have deprived Mr Lee of his control over Samsung Electronics, the world's biggest maker of smartphones, TVs and memory chips.

But a ruling against him would have diluted his holdings and could have forced a reshuffling of the intricate shareholdings across the Samsung group if he were to retain his grip.

It also came at a key juncture for the electronics giant's successions plans, just months after Mr Lee's son Jay Y. Lee, 44, was promoted to vice chairman.

A judge at the Seoul Central District Court ruled that Mr Lee could retain more than US$1 billion in Samsung Electronics shares and another US $1 billion in shares of Samsung Life.

Samsung Everland, a small zoo operator, was also allowed to keep its US$1 billion stake in Samsung Life. Mr Lee will remain Samsung Life's biggest shareholder with a 20.76 per cent stake.

The lawsuits accused Mr Lee of hiding from his siblings billions of dollars in shareholdings inherited from his father, Samsung's founder, while Mr Lee countered that as his father's chosen successor, he had free rein to transfer group company shares.

Mr Lee owns less than 4 per cent of Samsung Electronics but exercises substantial control over the firm and the 80 or so Samsung companies through family stakes in Samsung Everland and Samsung Life.

The trial coincides with rising public resentment towards South Korea's powerful "chaebol" conglomerates, reflecting their dominance in the economy and the widening wealth gaps in society.