Lawsuits Over COVID-19 Seeks Billions and Trillions from China

In one of the more remarkable lawsuits to be filed in recent years, a group of plaintiffs has filed a class-action lawsuit against the Chinese government for damages suffered due to the coronavirus outbreak. While litigation related to COVID-19 threatens to tie up the U.S. court system for years, this is one of the more ambitious legal efforts thus far to recoup costs associated with the pandemic. The case would present unusual issues of international law and foreign governments' liability in the United States if it were ever to make it to a trial on the merits. In actuality, there is now more than one case as various plaintiffs want to litigate what is proving to be a political point.

Of course, as the world knows by now, the coronavirus has been traced back to the Chinese city of Wuhan. The virus spread there for weeks before it reached the rest of the world. It took the Chinese government a considerable amount of time to get a handle on the situation, and only recently has it begun to make a dent in the number of new cases. Meanwhile, President Trump refers to COVID-19 as the Chinese virus in his attempt to remind the public of where the pandemic began.

The Lawsuits Are Personal Injury Cases against China

The first case was filed in South Florida as a class-action on behalf of four plaintiffs. The lawsuit claims that the plaintiffs have suffered by being in close proximity to the results of coronavirus. The lawsuit was filed both against the government of the People's Republic of China and the City of Wuhan. The complaint alleges that the government acted both negligently and recklessly in allowing the virus to take hold and spread across both the city and the country. The lawsuit seeks billions of dollars in damages for both economic harms and wrongful death on behalf of the people who have died from the illness. The complaint accuses the Chinese government of lax controls in allowing people to sell lab animals for food that ultimately transmitted the coronavirus.

Another lawsuit was filed by a conservative lawyer in Texas who heads a group called Freedom Watch. This is an even more ambitious lawsuit insofar as it seeks $20 trillion in damages from China over COVID-19. The named plaintiff in the lawsuit is a photography business that lost money since it was supposed to earn money from photographing high school sporting events. As a result, the company is close to bankruptcy due to lost business. The complaint even likened COVID-19 to a terrorist weapon of mass destruction, and it claimed that the Chinese government deliberately ignored the possible impacts of this disease by failing to take any action to contain it. The same lawyer has also sued numerous U.S. presidents and foreign governments as a legal gadfly.

The Lawsuits Seem to Be a Longshot

It is unlikely that these lawsuits will gain any traction in a court of law. Normally, foreign governments are immune to lawsuits in the United States. The U.S. does not want its courts to be used as a means for others to take action against governments much as it does not want to be the defendant in lawsuits filed in other countries. There is a law called the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act which generally acts to protect foreign governments from lawsuits in the U.S. There is an exception to it for commercial activities conducted abroad and for personal injury and death. This lawsuit would presumably be a large-scale personal injury lawsuit given the widespread damage and harm that have resulted from the outbreak.

Many lawsuits such as this are dismissed by courts before the merits can even be heard. Even if the case is not dismissed by a judge, it is doubtful that the Chinese government would participate in the legal process. Moreover, plaintiffs who have been successful in winning lawsuits against foreign governments in the U.S. have had some difficulty in collecting on their judgments. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that any of the plaintiffs will receive any money from these lawsuits. It seems that these lawsuits were filed more for the purposes of generating attention and focusing political attention on China as the source of the coronavirus as opposed to actually recovering any money from the government. Nonetheless, the economic damages from this outbreak may prove to be catastrophic for many who are suffering them.

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