Doctor Wins $16 Million in Libel Suit Against Paper : Defamation: Jurors find a Vietnamese-language journal in Westminster guilty of soiling the physician's reputation. It's the biggest-ever California award.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

An Anaheim physician has been awarded more than $16 million in damages by jurors who found that a Westminster-based Vietnamese newspaper printed false and malicious statements about him.

In what attorneys said was the largest libel award ever against a newspaper in California, Dr. Quang Nguyen successfully sued Viet Nam Tu Do, a weekly Vietnamese-language newspaper, for intentionally soiling his reputation and defaming his character.

"There was a whole series of articles saying some pretty terrible stuff," said Nguyen's attorney, Barry B. Langberg of Los Angeles. "The comments went from his personal to his professional life."

Among statements that a Los Angeles Superior Court jury considered libelous in its Sept. 6 verdict were that Nguyen, 50, was an unqualified and incompetent nephrologist--a specialist in kidneys--and had falsely advertised his medical practice.

The newspaper, with a circulation of about 5,000, also published fictional articles whose main character so closely resembled Nguyen that most readers believed the stories were about Nguyen, his attorneys said.

"In those articles they charged him with incest," said Langberg, who represented Carol Burnett in her 1981 libel suit against the National Enquirer tabloid.

Tien Doan, the newspaper's attorney, said he will ask the judge for a retrial. If it is not granted, he said, an appeal is likely.

He said his clients think that the awards for "damages were excessive . . . (and) that justice has not been served. The jury made a mistake."

Doan added that he will also ask the judge to reduce the amount of the award.

Doan said Viet Nam Tu Do--which means "a free Vietnam"--struggles financially "issue to issue. . . . It doesn't matter if the judgment was $16 million or $160,000. They don't have that much."

The two men named in the lawsuit were publisher Khoi Phuc Duc Nguyen and the author of some of the articles, An Duc Nguyen, who is also a doctor.

On Friday, publisher Nguyen said the articles had not been intended as a personal attack against the doctor but rather were aimed at an organization of physicians to which the doctor belonged.

"That organization has done many wrong things," said Nguyen, who is also editor-in-chief of the paper.

He said the doctors' group had encouraged Vietnamese immigrants to be fluent in English instead of their mother tongue--"something we don't agree with."

He also alleged that doctors in the group take advantage of people not fluent in English.

During the trial, defense attorney Doan argued unsuccessfully that Quang Nguyen is a public figure and thus must meet a tougher standard to win a libel award. The judge, however, ruled that Nguyen is a private figure.

The jury awarded $12 million in punitive damages, $580,000 in special damages and $3.5 million in general damages. Quang Nguyen could not be reached for comment Friday, but his attorney said he is elated with the verdict.

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