(CN) — Missouri’s Republican attorney general filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday against the government of China and the Chinese Communist Party, accusing them of being responsible for the global spread of the coronavirus that has sickened millions worldwide and tanked economies.
“Covid-19 has done irreparable damage to countries across the globe, causing sickness, death, economic disruption, and human suffering,” Attorney General Eric Schmitt said in a statement Tuesday. “In Missouri, the impact of the virus is very real — thousands have been infected and many have died, families have been separated from dying loved ones, small businesses are shuttering their doors, and those living paycheck to paycheck are struggling to put food on their table.”
However, two law professors with expertise in international law cast doubt on the odds of Missouri’s lawsuit getting much traction.
“The Chinese government unquestionably gets immunity from U.S. lawsuits, and it is very hard to see that the exceptions to that immunity claimed by Missouri would apply in this case,” Julian Ku, a constitutional law professor at Hofstra University, said in an email to Courthouse News. “So I would say the chances of the lawsuit succeeding to win relief is not zero, but it is not very high.”
Most of the defendants in Missouri’s suit — including various Chinese government agencies — are not subject to civil jurisdiction in U.S. courts, according to Chimène Keitner, professor of international law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco.
“I think it would also come as a surprise to China to find itself subjected to Missouri law, just as Missouri would not expect to be subject to Chinese law,” Keitner told Courthouse News. “Traditionally, this is the type of claim that would be handled through diplomatic negotiations or international dispute settlement, not domestic courts. I therefore think it is extremely unlikely that we will see any judgments against China in U.S. courts. If we did, we could expect to start seeing lawsuits against the United States in foreign courts for our alleged policy failures and missteps, which would be a huge problem.”
According to the complaint filed Tuesday in St. Louis federal court, Missouri had more than 5,800 confirmed infections from the coronavirus as of April 20 and at least 177 deaths.
Beyond the health impact, the complaint points out the economic impact on the state: “A preliminary analysis by an economist at the University of Missouri estimates that the economic impact of the pandemic on Missouri could total in the tens of billions of dollars, even if only one outbreak occurs.”
“Missouri is not alone: The virus unleashed by the Communist Party of China and the Chinese government has left no community in the world untouched,” the complaint states, laying the blame squarely on the Chinese government and Chinese institutions. “This Covid-19 pandemic is the direct result of a sinister campaign of malfeasance and deception carried out by defendants.”
Missouri’s lawsuit includes four counts under state law — public nuisance, abnormally dangerous activities and two counts of breach of duty — and the state wants the court to order China to pay restitution. Missouri also seeks an injunction ordering the defendants to “cease their negligence.”
Keitner, the UC Hastings professor, said Missouri was itself late to the game of defending against the virus.
“I've been reading this complaint, and my heart goes out to all those affected by the spread of this virus. However, it's hard to get around the fact that Missouri didn't implement a statewide stay-at-home order until April 6, which makes it much more difficult to blame all the economic and health consequences of the spread of the virus in Missouri on China,” she said. “There are also multiple steps that the federal government could and should have taken, and didn't.”
While jurisdictional issues may be a problem for the Missouri suit, Hofstra’s Ku saw one possibility for success.
“There is one interesting argument that Missouri made, in my view, which is to try to sue the Communist Party as separate from the Chinese government,” he said. “That might have some interest from the courts.”
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