Attorneys for the son of a South Korean fried chicken magnate are hopeful that their current “holding pattern” will be mercifully short, allowing their client to obtain a final measure of justice against employees of South Korea’s state-run television network.
On Hyewoong “Allen” Yoon’s behalf, those attorneys, Joseph Perl of Watertown and Bernard D. Posner of Boston, have already negotiated a $9 million settlement, ending a lawsuit against Yoon’s former guardian and longtime alleged tormentor, Hyunwook Joo. Sent to America at age 11 to attend school, Yoon was placed in the New Jersey resident’s care, only to have Joo abuse him mentally and physically, his complaint alleged. Yoon also claimed that Joo used the tutoring services Joo arranged as a platform to defraud Yoon’s father out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Once that gravy train had derailed, Yoon says Joo’s final dirty trick was to reach out to a Korean Broadcasting System reporter, Seyeon Lee, offering to dish fabricated dirt on Yoon’s father.
Joo alleged Yoon’s father had absconded with funds from his restaurant chain, BB.Q, to pay for the education and lavish lifestyles of his children in America. BB.Q has approximately 300 restaurants in more than 50 countries, including one in Allston. In addition to giving reporter Lee an anonymous on-camera interview, Joo also teed her up to believe that Yoon was violating the terms of the E-2 visa he had been granted due to his position with his father’s company.
In the course of her reporting, Lee tracked down Yoon in Massachusetts and secretly recorded a phone conversation with him, in violation of the state’s wiretapping statute, Yoon alleges.
That recording became part of what Yoon says was a defamatory hit piece, which was broadcast not just over the airwaves in South Korea but on a number of well-trafficked websites, including YouTube. With 2.5 million viewers, Americans comprise Korean Broadcasting System’s second largest foreign audience. On the internet, the video has received over a million views.
In a Dec. 20 decision, U.S. District Court Chief Judge Patti B. Saris first declined to allow KBS and its employees to use the Foreign Services Immunities Act as a shield, given the “commercial activities” they had conducted in the United States. Saris then bisected Yoon’s lawsuit, finding that courts in South Korea provide an adequate alternative forum in which to prosecute Yoon’s defamation and trade libel claims against KBS, Lee and her boss, Juhyung Lee.
In South Korea, there is superior access to proof and witnesses, particularly with respect to the key issue of whether Yoon’s father in fact misappropriated funds from his restaurant chain, Saris added.
Yoon’s father is under criminal investigation for the alleged embezzlement, but given the dubious source of the allegations, Perl and Posner say they are cautiously optimistic that the investigation will ultimately exonerate him.
Meanwhile, Saris determined that Yoon’s wiretapping claim was “fundamentally” different, as South Korean law does not recognize a civil cause of action for the unilateral, non-consensual recording of a phone conversation.
“The court’s decision dismissing the defamation-related claims that are being litigated simultaneously in South Korea correctly recognized the inherent unfairness to any party in having to defend identical claims in separate jurisdictions,” the defendants’ attorney, Douglas S. Brooks of Boston, writes in an emailed response to Lawyers Weekly’s inquiry. “The prejudice is especially strong where, as here, the two cases span different continents.”
However, Saris decided to press pause on the wiretapping proceedings to allow for the earlier-filed South Korean action to resolve. The outcome of that case could affect the calculation of actual damages stemming from the broadcast, Saris explained. In his complaint, Yoon seeks damages in excess of $39.5 million, a figure largely derived from $62 million loss of valuation Yoon says BB.Q suffered after KBS broadcast its story. Yoon owns approximately 63 percent of the company’s stock. Yoon had requested a similar amount of damages from Joo before settling for $9 million. In his complaint, Yoon alleged that, over the course of the nine years, Joo “repeatedly bullied [Yoon], abused him emotionally, neglected to properly care for him, and on several occasions physically abused him.”
Yoon says the mistreatment escalated after Joo got married and had children of his own, causing him to be treated as an “unwelcome presence in their home.” Joo allegedly attempted to photograph a 14-year-old Yoon naked as he was preparing to take a shower, wanting to have a “before” image to compare with how Yoon would look when he returned from a camp for overweight children he was being sent off to. Yoon also says that when he was around 15, he was left in a hotel for the duration of a two-week school break with a box full of premade rice and raw beef for him to cook and eat, during which Joo came to visit him only twice. In ninth grade, Yoon’s left arm swelled, and he was taken to the emergency room, where he was diagnosed with an infection that began in the ear and passed down to the arm.
“I didn’t know a pig can get an infection,” Joo allegedly told him.
As for the physical abuse, Yoon says it included being kneed, punched in the arm, slapped on the back, and hit in the testicles by Joo.
Despite his father paying for Joo and his family to move into two larger homes, Yoon says his use of the homes was severely restricted. At one point, Joo got Yoon a fountain for his upstairs bedroom so that he would not come down for water, Yoon alleges.
Even as he was allegedly mistreating Yoon, Joo was accepting more than $640,000 from Yoon’s father between 2013 and 2016, claiming that’s how much it would cost to secure tutoring for Yoon.
However, the services were ultimately provided by “sham companies,” with Joo actually pocketing the vast bulk of the funds, over $535,000.
Perl says a hearing is scheduled in South Korea in January, at which most of the outstanding issues related to the Yoons, Joo and KBS should be decided.
Perl says it has been interesting learning about the legal system of another culture, noting that he and Posner have been working closely with Yoon’s South Korean counsel and translators to ensure that they are actively relaying to the Massachusetts court what is transpiring thousands of miles away.