SAN FRANCISCO—An agreement to settle a wrongful death lawsuit against a Chinese real estate heiress acquitted of murder charges in her ex-boyfriend’s death was delayed by a California judge Thursday after her attorney disputed the amount of attorneys’ fees it included and claimed that the lawyer who made the deal was not even representing her.
Tiffany Li was found not guilty in 2019 of the killing of Keith Green, her ex-boyfriend and the father of her two daughters. The case drew global attention when Li’s family, who made a fortune in real estate construction in China, posted one of the highest bail amounts on record in the United States—$35 million.
Li, who was born in China and grew up in Silicon Valley, remained at her toney compound during the trial after family, friends and her mother’s business associates raised $4 million and pledged Bay Area properties worth a combined $62 million to post her bail. Courts require double the bail amount when property is pledged instead of cash.
Prosecutors said Li lured Green to her mansion in Hillsborough, south of San Francisco, on April 28, 2016, to discuss custody of their children. They said her then-boyfriend Kaveh Bayat shot Green and the two hired a friend to dispose of the body, which was found nearly two weeks later along a dirt road in Sonoma County.
The jury deadlocked on murder charges against Bayat. The friend who helped dispose of the body, Olivier Adella, reached a plea agreement.
Green’s mother, Colleen Cudd, filed a wrongful death suit in 2018 on behalf of her son’s estate and her granddaughters, who moved to China with their mother after she was acquitted.
Attorneys for both sides announced last month that they had reached a settlement, two weeks before the trial in the wrongful death lawsuit was to start. The settlement includes $100,000 for Cudd, $50,000 for Green’s estate, and an undisclosed amount for the two daughters, who are 7 and 9 years old.
San Mateo County Superior Court Judge Danny Chou was set to approve the terms of the settlement Thursday, but in a surprising turn of events, Li’s attorney Jason Fernell said the lawyer who negotiated the settlement agreement with the children, Alexander Berline, was not representing Li. He also opposed the fees being awarded to the attorneys representing the children because he said the amount was redacted from the settlement.
“All of a sudden, on the day of the hearing, first you told me that you don’t agree with the amount of fees that are being awarded, and then second, you can’t even tell me whether the person who negotiated the settlement on behalf of your client is, in fact, representing your client?” Chou asked Fernell.
When Fernell asked the judge to be allowed to file documents asking to know the redacted attorneys’ fees, Chou reminded him he could have filed that motion before Thursday’s hearing.
“That doesn’t make any sense. Your argument, frankly, is illogical,” an exasperated Chou said.
The judge continued the hearing until April 21 to allow the attorneys to clarify whether Berline was actually representing Li in the settlement negotiations.
Attorneys for both the mother and the grandmother argued that the amount being awarded to the children should not be disclosed.
“These minor children, my client’s children, don’t even know that this case was ever filed. They have never met their lawyers,” Fernell said.
But Chou said such financial details can’t be kept under seal and he would allow the attorneys to introduce arguments to the contrary before the next hearing.
Donald Magilligan, one of the attorneys representing Green’s mother and the children, told The Associated Press that she decided to sue because one day the girls are going to grow up and have questions about what happened to their father, adding that Li “has got attorneys from four different law firms.”
“The purpose of the lawsuit was to give those girls financial freedom to ask questions about what happened,” he said.
He agreed that the financial awards for the children should be kept under seal.
“They are 7 and 9, they don’t need the whole world knowing how much money they have in the bank,” he said.
By Olga R. Rodriguez