MANHATTAN (CN) – Litigation over a Chinese gymnast paralyzed during the 1998 Goodwill Games “has been too ugly,” a federal judge groused, sorting out recently revived claims against the fallen athlete’s guardians.
When she was 17, China’s 1997 national champion Sang Lan was warming up for the 1998 games when an employee for the organizers allegedly wandered into the vault area and removed the mat as she was about to land.
She hit her head on the floor, permanently disabling her from the chest down and ending her career.
After the accident, the president of the games announced during a press conference that insurance would take care of Sang’s “immediate medical needs,” but the various corporate sponsors were vague as to their long-term medical and financial support.
The Goodwill for Sang Lan fund was established that year, and the Chinese government tapped Westchester couple Keo-Sung and Gina Hiu-Hung Liu to serve as its exclusive trustees and managers.
Time Warner pledged to contribute to and solicit donations for it.
The next year, Sang accused media mogul Ted Turner in the press of reneging on his promise of support. The Lius allegedly discouraged her, however, from filing formal claims against him or his company for more than a decade.
In 2011, Sang sued AOL Time Warner, the United States Gymnastics Federation dba USA Gymnastics, TIG Insurance, Riverstone Claims Management, Turner and the Lius for $1.8 billion. The lawsuit included alarming allegations that the Chinese government denied her mother and father’s parental rights, and that her new guardians abused, exploited and defamed her.
Early in the case, Sang had a falling out with her original attorney, Ming Hai, whose formal withdrawal months into the case did not stop him from being attacked for filing “frivolous” claims.
Hai signed an obsequiously apologetic “Acknowledgement of Wrongdoing,” on March 2, 2012, in which he agreed to a $5,000 settlement with the Lius and their lawyer to avoid sanctions.
In the document, he disavowed his “salacious complaints” and “baseless allegations” against the couple, admitting his “serious wrongdoing and misconduct.”
The statement ends: “I beg them to forgive me.”
Two months after the couple started publicizing the statement in the Chinese press, Hai tried unsuccessfully to take back his words, arguing that the disclosure of the payment breached their confidentiality agreement.
U.S. District Judge Leonard Sand found Tuesday that Hai’s lengthy delay thwarted his attempt to opt out of the agreement. The 11-page decision contains a subsection, “This Litigation Has Been Too Ugly”:
“Explaining why he did not raise an objection to the breach that occurred when the settlement amount was publicly objection publicly disclosed, Hai wrote:
“‘I come from China, knowing very well that silence is gold in time of trouble. But silence is not consent or waiver. When people feel people powerless or lost faith in the Judge, they often keep silence. When Nazi Germany killed millions of civilians, the civilians remained silent, because they did not have the power or ‘bold’ enough to fight back. When a rapist overpowered his victim and raped her, can he turn around and say to her ‘you waived your rights, because you were silent and did not fight back?'”
Judge Sand commented: “Hai’s analogizing himself to Holocaust and rape victims in this situation is, to put it euphemistically, inept and inappropriate.”
Hai told Courthouse News that he “officially apologized” to the judge and magistrate in a letter to chambers for his “bad analogy.”
“The analogy is a poor choice of words and examples, but what I want to say is that ‘waiver’ under duress is not a legal waiver,” Hai said.
He added that he regretted calling Sang’s claims frivolous.
“Judge Sand has previously ruled that the complaint is not frivolous,” Hai said. “However, as this is the first time for me to face a sanction motion, out of fear I settled it while I should have not, because after all it is not frivolous. As Judge Sand points out, even if I believe the earth is flat, ‘so what?’ if I signed a contract to say it is flat, I cannot withdraw from that contract simply because I later found out it is not flat. The judge made a good analogy here.”
Indeed, U.S. Magistrate Judge James Francis IV gave several of the claims against the Lius a green light last month.
In an April 19, 2013, report and recommendation, the magistrate endorsed forcing the Lius to provide an accounting of the Goodwill for Sang Lan Fund, which they allegedly controlled until 2008. He also found that Sang should be able to sue the couple for allegedly swiping gifts and memorabilia that the public sent to her, as she started demanding these items back in 2011.
In addition, the Lius also must answer for allegedly defamatory postings on their blog in early 2011, which underline the ugliness of the litigation.
“Sang Lan is too lazy,” one of the posts stated. “Can’t get a job. I helped her to get the job at Star TV through my connections with high rank Chinese officials, but she lost that job later because she didn’t want to do any work.”
Another post read: “San[g] Lan is so lazy that she was trained to pee on her own, but she didn’t [and] I had to use a tube to assist her to pee.”
Adding injury to insult, the couple allegedly used Sang’s name, portrait and voice in brochures, CDs, blogs and advertisements without her consent to promote their business.
These acts could constitute an invasion of privacy, the magistrate found.
He dismissed other claims against the Lius, and all of the claims against Time Warner, as barred by the statute of limitation or insufficiently pled.
Hugh Mo, the attorney for the Lius, indicated that he would object to some of these findings, but he declined to otherwise comment because of the pending litigation.
Lan’s current lawyer, Bing Xu, did not return a request for comment.
Meanwhile, Hai pledged to do his part to return the case to civility.
“Judge Sand said attorneys should stop ‘personal attacks’ against each other in same case,” Hai wrote. “I agree 100 percent. So I decide to move on, and not to appeal.”
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