Missouri AG Sues China Gov't Over COVID-19 Misinformation

By Craig Clough
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Law360 (April 21, 2020, 9:38 PM EDT) -- Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt sued the Chinese government, Chinese Communist Party, and other Chinese officials and institutions Tuesday in federal court, claiming that their actions led to the spread of COVID-19 and the loss of billions of dollars for the state.

Citing various news stories from sources such as the New York Times and CNN, Schmitt alleges a widespread coverup and misinformation campaign by Chinese authorities during the critical first few weeks and months of the discovery of the virus in the Chinese city Wuhan.

Schmitt said the coverup led to the unnecessary spread of the virus, and that Chinese authorities were bound by certain international laws to accurately report the threat the virus posed to the world community but failed to do so. The result was a violation of various Missouri laws, including creating a public nuisance and breach of duty.

“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 — thus causing a global pandemic that was unnecessary and preventable,” Schmitt said.

The lawsuit provides a timeline using various media outlets as sources to claim that Chinese authorities knew or had evidence suggesting there was a new coronavirus spreading in Wuhan through human-to-human contact in December and January but publicly denied this fact until at least Jan. 20.

Included in the timeline is the allegation that on Jan. 1 or 2, the Wuhan police detained eight doctors who had been publicly discussing the new virus and condemned them for making false statements. 

One of them, Dr. Li Wenliang, was forced to confess to a misdemeanor, prepare a self-criticism and agree not to commit any additional “unlawful acts,” according to Schmitt. Wenliang later died from a COVID-19 infection.

"An appalling campaign of deceit, concealment, misfeasance, and inaction by Chinese authorities unleashed this pandemic," Schmitt said. 

The lawsuit is not the first to take aim at Chinese authorities for COVID-19, as a group of Southern California businesses and organizations filed a proposed class action earlier in April on behalf of American small businesses, seeking at least $8 trillion for what they say is the Chinese government's culpability in the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Missouri lawsuit does specify the amount of damages being sought but estimates the loss to the state in the tens of billions. Schmitt also said that as of Monday, Missouri had more than 5,800 confirmed infections from COVID-19 and 177 deaths.

The lawsuit includes Wuhan Institute of Virology as a defendant, and repeats a theory that the bio-weapons lab could be the source of the virus. China has denied the theory.

“COVID-19 has done irreparable damage to countries across the globe, causing sickness, death, economic disruption, and human suffering,” Schmitt said in a statement. “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."

He added that China "lied to the world about the danger and contagious nature of COVID-19, silenced whistleblowers, and did little to stop the spread of the disease. They must be held accountable for their actions.”

Julian Ki, a professor at the Maurice A. Deane School of Law at Hofstra University, wrote on Twitter that there are “lots of jurisdictional obstacles facing this lawsuit; the main one being that the Chinese govt is generally immune under US law from lawsuits in US courts. But the Missouri AG has tried some interesting attempts here to get around this law.”

Among the approaches he noted was that Schmitt is suing “the Chinese Communist Party itself, which may not be entitled to immunity since it is technically not part of the Chinese state. So even if all of the other Chinese govt entities get immunity, the CCP may not.”

Missouri is represented by Justin D. Smith of the Missouri Attorney General’s Office.

Counsel for the defendants was not immediately available.

The case is The State of Missouri ex rel. Eric S. Schmitt, case number 1:20-cv-00099, in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri.

--Editing by Amy Rowe.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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