A Circuit Court jury in Honolulu last week awarded more than $600,000 in damages to a Honolulu woman, culminating a decade-long legal dispute between neighbors over a shared driveway that gave rise to rival allegations of harassment, attempted intimidation, trespassing, invasion of privacy, character assassination and more.

Following a three-week trial, the jury found former Miss Hawaii Denby Dung, her sister, Darah, a former Miss Chinatown USA, along with their brother, mother, and uncle, liable for damages to their neighbor, Donna Lee Ching.

The parties are more than neighbors, they are family. Ching and Dixon Dung, the uncle of the Dung sisters and a defendant in the case, are second cousins, according to documents filed in the case.

The jury found members of the Dung family engaged in a civil conspiracy to harass, threaten and intimidate Ching in order to discourage her from pursuing the driveway dispute. The jury also found the Dungs invaded Ching’s privacy and defamed her, including by posting derogatory comments on their shared Facebook page.

Darah and Denby Dung, along with a third sister who was not named in the lawsuit, promote themselves as “The Dung Sisters.” Their joint Facebook page has drawn thousands of likes, and features photos of the women in high-profile public settings.

Dung Sisters Denby Darah

The jury found that all of the defendants were responsible for certain actions, while others involved only the two sisters and their mother.

The jury rejected all counter-allegations by the Dung family, who alleged that Ching intentionally harassed them, inflicted emotional distress, and misused her access to the shared driveway.

Even without the jury award, the dispute and the three-week trial will likely cost all parties hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees and costs, not to mention the emotional wear and tear, time lost, and reputational damage.

It’s a cautionary tale illustrating the potential costs to all parties, and to the public, when a straightforward dispute is pursued beyond all logical boundaries.

And it also shows how the use of social media as public leverage in a messy legal dispute can backfire.

The Easement

To understand the roots of this dispute, you have to go back to 1944. At that time, Ching’s grandmother, Mary Au Ching, consolidated several parcels on the sloping hillside between Hoonanea Street and Wilder Avenue, just a long block from the University of Hawaii campus, documents filed in the case show.

The consolidated lot was then resubdivided, and recorded with the Land Court of the Territory of Hawaii. The newly configured subdivision included a  10,263-square-foot lot starting along Hoonanea Street and extending down the hill, and a smaller 7,386-square-foot lot below.

The Land Court documents show that a 12-foot-wide easement was designated along one boundary of the upper lot, which runs 155 feet downslope and connects to the top boundary of the lower lot. The deed for the lower lot included rights to the easement, which provided the only way vehicles could get from that property to the street above.

The jury ruled that ‘malicious prosecution’ also damaged Ching, referring to the complaints that led to arrests and court action.

The upper lot was apparently held by the Dung family since before the 1970s. Over time, partial interests in the property were distributed to various members of the family. The Dung sisters, their brother, and mother, Annette Dung, live in the lower house, while their uncle and his family occupy the upper house.

Donna Ching purchased the lot next door, at the bottom of the hill, from her grandmother’s estate in 2004 for $540,000, state land records show. The house came with the associated rights to use of the easement.

And here’s where the bad blood started.

Both sides seem to agree that prior to Ching’s purchase of the property in 2004, the right to use the easement to Hoonanea Street had never been exercised. Up until then, the Dungs enjoyed exclusive use of the driveway.

This worked because Ching’s grandmother also owned the house next door fronting on Wilder Avenue, immediately below the other two lots. For years, she parked her car next to the Wilder house, and walked the short distance up to her other house, according to documents filed in the case.

Meanwhile, the Dungs built a driveway along the designated easement sometime in the 1970s, which they say required extensive engineering because of the 40-foot drop from the top to the bottom.  Substantial excavation, as well as several tons of backfill material and gravel, were needed. The family says they spent an unknown but “substantial” amount to create the steep driveway, and had exclusive use of it.

But when Mary Ching died and her estate was settled, the Wilder Street house and its parking area were sold separately. In order to avoid being landlocked, Ching told the Dungs that she intended to connect her property to their driveway and use the easement.

And then the fighting started.

The Dung family's Hoonea Street house. The disputed driveway is on the left.

The Dung family’s Hoonanea Street house. The disputed driveway is on the left.

Google Street View

‘No Trespassing’

Construction on the connection from Ching’s home to the existing driveway started in May 2007, records show. On May 1, 2007, Annette Dung told the contractor he could not use the existing driveway to deliver materials to the job site. Two days later, according to the lawsuit, Annette and Denby Dung stood in the driveway and blocked the delivery of construction materials.

Over the next month, access along the driveway was periodically blocked. Then, in early June 2007, a chain with a “No Trespassing” sign was put across the driveway and locked in place, blocking all access to the easement.

Ching then filed suit, seeking a court injunction to remove the chain and allow the construction of her part of the driveway to be proceed.

Court records show that within several weeks, an agreement was reached between the parties. They agreed that Ching should be able to use the driveway and easement for access to her house, and for “reasonable loading and unloading of material” so long as it wasn’t used for parking or storage of materials.

With a basic agreement in hand, the lawsuit wasn’t pursued further. Things appeared to be settled and remained calm over the next several years, despite occasional conflicts between Ching and her neighbors.

Then in 2013 the conflict between the families erupted anew. Both sides say they were the victims of harassment and intimidation.

Denby Dung called police one night because Ching had come outside with a flashlight, and Dung said the bright light hurt her eyes.

Ching complained that the Dungs made it difficult for roofing contractors to repair her house in 2012, then harassed her painting contractor. When she had the easement surveyed, apparently to determine whether there were improper encroachments, Ching claims the survey stakes were vandalized. She later complained that the Dung sisters repeatedly screamed at her or her guests as they walked along the driveway past the Dung’s house, interfered with her contractors, and began placing rocks, plants, old tires, and saw horses to block parts of the easement.

The Dung’s saw it differently. First, they no longer accepted that Ching had a right to use the easement, which their attorneys now referred to as her “alleged right to an easement.” Denby Dung now says the claimed easement is “a lie,” and that she no longer agrees with prior court rulings on the matter, documents filed in court show.

It isn’t clear from the record just what prompted the change. However, Ching’s attorneys point out that as long as the easement is in place, the Dungs’ lot is too small to be subdivided. By implication, if the easement were to be extinguished or abandoned, the lot could be divided and the two homes sold separately.

However, the Dungs cited many other reasons for the renewed conflict.

Tensions Escalate

In a counter-complaint to Ching’s lawsuit, the Dungs alleged she drove too fast and recklessly down the driveway or, alternately, was intentionally “creepy” by driving past very slowly. They installed 24-hour video surveillance cameras, and allege Ching was captured on video “kicking, shoving, and damaging their plants and personal property.”

Then they complained that Ching was harassing them when she took photographs of the placement of the video surveillance system, or tried to photograph them taking pictures of her.

They also blamed Ching for harassing them by slamming doors, honking her horn, loudly clearing her throat, or setting off her car alarm.

In February 2014, Annette Dung obtained a temporary restraining order limiting Ching’s use of the driveway to driving in and out from her house. She was directed not to stop along the driveway, but enter and exit without stopping.

Meanwhile, the Dungs installed a swinging gate across the easement at the bottom of their driveway, requiring Ching to open the gate in order to enter or leave her property, and this became major source of conflict.

In order to open the gate for her car without violating the TRO, Ching would park at the top of the incline, walk down and open the gate, then walk back up the hill, retrieve her car, and drive down to her house.

The jury was apparently not amused, ruling that these and related Facebook comments by Denby, Darah, and Annette Dung defamed Ching and caused legal damages.

She complained that members of the Dung family would sometimes wait until she opened the gate, then close it as she was walking to her car, forcing her to repeat the process. At other times, Ching says they would hassle friends who tried to open the gate for her.

Then the Dungs started calling the police, often for extremely minor annoyances. Between April 2013 and June 2014, they called 911 at least 31 times.

One day in February 2014, the Dungs had Ching arrested and prosecuted for violating the TRO by stopping at the top of the driveway to take a photo of an alleged obstruction of the easement. The charge was later dismissed. Another time she was arrested for honking her horn in what Annette Dung said was a harassing manner, and eventually paid a $10 fine.

On yet another occasion, Ching was washing her car in her yard when Denby and Darah Dung called the police, alleging she had intentionally sprayed them with water on the other side of the wall. Ching was arrested and charged with two counts of harassment. That case eventually went to trial and she was acquitted.

Denby Dung called police one night because Ching had come outside with a flashlight, and Dung said the bright light hurt her eyes.

Ching, meanwhile, says she and her guests were subjected to humiliating comments by the Dung family, who allegedly would loudly comment on her sex life, accusing her of having “multiple sexual partners,” or male friends.

Some of these comments were repeated by the Dung Sisters on Facebook.

“Ever since she’s moved in she’s had so many men going up and down our driveway,” one sister wrote on the public Facebook page. “On this morning the guy driving her is not the same one she returned with later that night.”

The jury was apparently not amused, ruling that these and related comments by Denby, Darah, and Annette Dung defamed Ching and caused legal damages.

The jury ruled that “malicious prosecution” also damaged Ching, referring to the complaints that led to arrests and court action. And then there was the finding of a “civil conspiracy” by the Dung family against Ching.

In the end, the jury awarded Ching $500,000 in general damages, $100,000 in punitive damages, and $16,600 in special damages, court records show.

Oh, and that disputed easement? The jury ruled that Ching indeed has the legal right to use the driveway easement for both pedestrian and vehicle access, and right to the easement had never been abandoned.

Meanwhile, it seems likely the craziness will continue. If the past course of the dispute is any indication, this judgment is likely to be appealed, and the cost to the parties, and to the public, will continue to mount.

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