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JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (ChurchMilitant.com) - Missouri is the first state to sue the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for damages related to the Wuhan virus.
On behalf of the citizens of the Show-Me State, Attorney General Eric Schmitt filed suit in U.S. District Court on Tuesday, April 21. Not far behind was the state of Mississippi, which filed suit against China on April 22. But even before these two states filed, a Florida plaintiff's firm, Berman Law Group, filed a class action lawsuit in mid-March naming the CCP, the People's Republic of China, and various other Chinese entities as defendants.
Thomas Jipping, deputy director for the Heritage Foundation's Center for Legal and Judicial Studies, explains why the lawsuit is unusual and what roadblocks it may encounter.
"Suing a government is different than suing private individuals or companies. The first and biggest hurdle is the legal principle often called sovereign or state immunity, that a government cannot be sued without its consent," he said.
There are exceptions to sovereign immunity, and they were spelled out in the 1976 Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA). Both the states of Missouri and Mississippi and the Florida plaintiffs' firm believe China's actions allow for the exception to immunity, making it possible for lawsuits like theirs to go forward.
In case they don't qualify for the exception, another Missouri leader, Sen. Josh Hawley has proposed new legislation, the "Justice for Victims of COVID-19 Act" which would strip China of its sovereign immunity and completely remove that barrier to civil actions against the country.
In his statement, Hawley said "There is overwhelming evidence that the Chinese Communist Party's lies, deceit and incompetence caused COVID-19 to transform from a local disease outbreak into a global pandemic." He added, "We need an international investigation to learn the full extent of the damage the CCP has inflicted on the world and then we need to empower Americans and other victims around the world to recover damages."
Some think Missouri may have jumped the gun with its lawsuit. Jipping told Church Militant he believes legal action against China might be premature. He said he has looked at the Missouri complaint, and in his opinion, it relies too much on conjecture and media reports.
"We are still in the middle of the crisis. How can we calculate the damages? We aren't even allowed out the front door. There's still a lot we don't know," said Jipping. He also noted that seeking redress through litigation or legislation is a very long process. "We are talking about years, even if the actions are successful."
Jipping is quick to point out that he is not a litigator: "There may be reasons for Missouri's timing and strategy. It's up to the courts to handle."
Jeremy Alters, spokesman for Berman Law Group's class action case, explained to Church Militant the strategy, "From an academic standpoint ... would be ideal to have all the facts in hand before moving ahead; but in class action cases, it is common for the lawsuit to be amended as additional facts are uncovered."
"The lawsuit is meant to put China on notice," Alters added. "When a country is known for destroying evidence and silencing whistleblowers, the lawsuit is a warning to not do that. It also serves to create momentum and gather people."
Alters' firm is pursuing two class action suits against China. One involves health care workers who were put at risk when China began hoarding personal protective equipment. The other involves victims of the Wuhan virus. That suit was recently amended to include the CCP; whereas the People's Republic of China can, as a sovereign nation, claim immunity, the Chinese Communist Party cannot.
Julian Reichelt, editor of Germany's most popular newspaper, Bild, published an itemized invoice of costs associated with the virus that included, for example, 27 billion euros for tourism and 7.2 billion euros for the German film industry. The invoice appeared under the headline "What China Owes Us." Chinese Embassy officials denounced the publication saying the story "stirs up nationalism, prejudice, xenophobia and hostility to China." Reichelt shot back, "We drew up the bill and told the Chinese government there is a bill to pay and it should be discussed."
Australia's Foreign Minister Marise Payne told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that her concerns about China's role in the global pandemic were "at a very high point." She went on to say, "The issues around the coronavirus are issues for independent review, and I think that it is important that we do that. In fact, Australia will absolutely insist on that."
Catholic Steven Mosher, author of numerous books on China, including Bully of Asia: Why China's Dream Is the New Threat to World Order, recommends "filing complaints on every front," including the United Nations and the International Court of Justice at The Hague.
In his comments to Church Militant, Mosher compared this approach to the Chinese method of torture known as "death by a thousand cuts." He believes legal actions from around the globe and from individual states ultimately will bring down the Chinese Communist Party. He hopes the world will "use them [the legal actions] to build a Great Wall around the Chinese government and make them pay the butcher's bill."
Mosher predicts that the Chinese government will not respond to the lawsuits, providing the opportunity to seize assets the CCP holds in the United States.
A Catholic theologian told Church Militant that natural law would hold China morally responsible for the death and suffering resulting from its actions or its failures to act responsibly, noting that civil law adjudicates such responsibility through restorative justice lawsuits.
He pointed to a 2000 declaration by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which stated, "A Catholic approach leads us to encourage models of restorative justice that seek to address crime in terms of the harm done to victims and communities, not simply as a violation of law."
"Restorative justice focuses first on the victim and the community harmed by the crime, rather than on the dominant state-against-the-perpetrator model," the bishops added. "This shift in focus affirms the hurt and loss of the victim, as well as the harm and fear of the community, and insists that offenders come to grips with the consequences of their actions."