JD.com tycoon Richard Liu settles rape lawsuit hours before US trial begins

Ms Liu Jingyao (right) had been seeking at least US$50,000 (S$72,000) in damages from JD.com founder Richard Liu. PHOTOS: JD.COM, NYTIMES

NEW YORK - Billionaire JD.com founder Richard Liu has reached a settlement with Ms Liu Jingyao, the Minnesota student who accused him of rape in 2018, bringing to a close a civil suit less than 48 hours before a trial was set to begin.

"The incident between Ms Jingyao Liu and Mr Richard Liu in Minnesota in 2018 resulted in a misunderstanding that has consumed substantial public attention and brought profound suffering to the parties and their families," the parties said in a joint statement.

"Today, the parties agreed to set aside their differences, and settle their legal dispute in order to avoid further pain and suffering caused by the lawsuit."

Details of the settlement were not released. Ms Liu, who is not related to the JD.com founder, had been seeking at least US$50,000 (S$72,000) in damages, plus additional punitive damages in the lawsuit.

While in criminal trials prosecutors are required to persuade a jury the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, the standard is lower in civil suits, where the jury must only be convinced by a preponderance of evidence of the defendant's liability.

Mr Liu, whose Chinese name is Liu Qiangdong, is one of China's most powerful businessmen, and the company he founded in 1998 has grown to be one of its biggest e-commerce platforms.

News of the alleged assault wiped US$10 billion off the value of the company, but Mr Liu remains among the 150 richest people in the world, according to the Bloomberg Billionaire Index, with a net worth of US$12.2 billion.

The civil suit drew international attention, in part because China's domestic legal system makes it hard for women to seek recourse for sexual misconduct by men. The nation's courts give little weight to testimony in general, making it difficult for women whose cases depend on witness statements and credibility.

Ms Liu, then a student at the University of Minnesota, filed a police report in 2018 saying that the tech executive had groped her in a car after dinner in a Minneapolis restaurant and later raped her. After prosecutors declined to press charges, saying they lacked sufficient evidence, Ms Liu filed a civil suit.

Mr Liu, who had been expected to testify in the trial, has consistently denied Ms Liu's accusations and insisted that their encounter was consensual. Ms Liu has also been attacked by some on Chinese social media, accusing her of trying to blackmail him.

Interest in the trial in China was high. Mr Liu was spotted with his pregnant wife in a Target store last week, according to photos posted on Weibo, the Chinese social media platform. The post garnered 890 million views and spurred about 30,000 discussions.

In the three months after his arrest, JD.com lost more than US$10 billion of market value - almost a third of its capitalisation at the time. In China, JD.com is a combination of e-commerce and delivery, with similarities to Amazon.com and Federal Express. It also has operations in Thailand and Indonesia.

The company paid a special cash dividend in May of 63 cents per ordinary share and US$1.26 per American depository share for a payout of US$2 billion, of which more than US$200 million went to Mr Liu.

On Sept 16, Mr Liu relinquished 45 per cent of his equity interests in two JD.com affiliates to Mr Qin Miao, the vice president of JD Group, to boost the administration's efficiency, according to filings with the Hong Kong stock exchange. The transfer followed Mr Liu's decision to step down as chief executive officer of JD.com in April. He was replaced by the company's president, Mr Xu Lei.

Mr Liu also resigned from the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, citing "personal reasons". BLOOMBERG

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