Missouri attorney general Eric Schmitt is "confident" he will secure damages from the Chinese government for its responsibility in unleashing the coronavirus pandemic.
While congressional Republicans have floated legislation to allow American citizens to sue China for mishandling the coronavirus, Schmitt on Tuesday made Missouri the first state to file a lawsuit against the communist nation. The suit says the Chinese government must be held liable for the "enormous loss of life, human suffering, and economic turmoil" brought on by the deadly disease. Schmitt estimates that the virus has caused tens of billions of dollars in economic damage in the Show-Me State alone.
"The fact is, by the cover-up, by the deception, by the lies, by the silencing of whistleblowers, by the hoarding of protective equipment, by not informing the world about how deadly the virus would be, a pandemic was unleashed on the world," Schmitt said in an interview with the Washington Free Beacon. "All of that certainly points to the Chinese government for its malfeasance, and we want to hold them accountable for that."
Schmitt's lawsuit identifies multiple defendants, including the Chinese Communist Party, the nation's health and emergency ministries, provincial and city governments in Hubei and Wuhan, and the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a superlab which some U.S. officials suspect played a role in the outbreak. The suit outlines an array of facts highlighting China's abuses in the early stages of the outbreak that resulted in an "unnecessary and preventable" pandemic.
"During the critical weeks of the initial outbreak, Chinese authorities deceived the public, suppressed crucial information, arrested whistleblowers, denied human-to-human transmission in the face of mounting evidence, destroyed critical medical research, permitted millions of people to be exposed to the virus, and even hoarded personal protective equipment," the suit says.
The Republican AG expressed confidence in the suit's legal merit, saying he expects other states to launch similar efforts in the near future.
"We feel confident in our legal case and think that other states are probably going to follow suit," he told the Free Beacon.
While Missouri has not been hit as hard by the virus as some of the urban epicenters of the pandemic in the United States, the state ranks among the top half in coronavirus cases, according to the CDC. More than 6,000 Missouri residents have been diagnosed with the disease, which emerged in China in December. Schmitt said that those responsible for the outbreak must compensate victims of the virus and the "tremendous" economic devastation brought on by public shutdowns.
"I represent 6 million Missourians. We've got over 6,000 cases now, over 200 deaths. It's a tremendous impact," Schmitt said. "The human toll of people losing loved ones, not being able to visit family suffering from the virus, [and] not attending funerals. That's not even mentioning the economic impact. People living paycheck to paycheck can't feed their families now. All because the Chinese government lied about this."
China could typically claim immunity from the lawsuit under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which inhibits the ability to sue sovereign nations in U.S. courts. Schmitt said that blanket immunity should not apply, pointing to the exemptions made for commercial activities. The law states in part that a foreign actor may lose its immunity by partaking in commercial activity outside of America that has a "direct effect" in the United States. The regime's behavior in suppressing the existence of the disease, as well as hoarding medical equipment made by American companies in China, forfeited those legal protections.
"We're essentially claiming a public nuisance," Schmitt said. "In our complaint, we allege that by being engaged in the hoarding of protective equipment, by being engaged in running hospitals, by being engaged in running the virology lab, China is pulled out of the normal protection that they may be able to claim."
Schmitt has taken further steps to advance the suit past immunity claims. The lawsuit names non-state actors as defendants, which could limit China's ability to claim sovereignty.
"One thing that's unique about our lawsuit is that we also name non-state actors, in addition to the Communist Party," Schmitt said. "The assertion there is that the Chinese government is running everything anyway, so they don't get to claim immunity because they have a non-state actor in charge of the actions or inactions that led to these damages that we're asserting."
Sen. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) and Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R., Texas) introduced legislation in April to create a new exception specifically related to damages caused by China's pandemic response. Schmitt said the merits of his suit should suffice even if the bill is not passed.
"I think our complaint is strong," he said.
The case was filed in U.S District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri on Tuesday.