Leave it to a Florida law firm to sue China over the new coronavirus.
The class action suit, filed March 12, claims that the government of the Peoples Republic of China wasted precious time suppressing information about the outbreak instead of warning the world about what was coming, and seeks compensation for the lives lost and the economic devastation wrought by a historic pandemic that has infected over 2.5 million people and killed almost 200,000 worldwide.
At least three other similar lawsuits have been filed in federal courts across the United States against the Chinese government. On Tuesday, the state of Missouri sued the Chinese government in federal court over the coronavirus in federal court on similar grounds.
But legal scholars say that the chances of anyone being able to use the machinery of the U.S. legal system to wrestle money out of a sovereign, foreign government because of the outbreak of a deadly virus are slim.
“Our people have been egregiously harmed. China and the Chinese Communist Party must pay for what they did,” says Jeremy Alters, chief strategist and non-attorney representative for the Boca Raton-based Berman Law Group, the firm bringing the suit.
“This is as crazy as it sounds,” says Robert Jarvis, an international litigation professor at Nova Southeastern University.
The new coronavirus, which has its closest genetic relative in a virus found in bats in southern China, was first detected in humans in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late December 2019 after clusters of pneumonia patients began appearing in area hospitals.
The Berman Group’s lawsuit alleges that China hid the deadliness of the pathogen from the rest of the world for crucial weeks after the outbreak began, letting the highly contagious virus spread unimpeded across the globe while taking measures to protect its own citizens.
The lawsuit also puts forward the unproven speculation that the virus escaped from a Wuhan research laboratory.
Since filing the legal action, Alters claims that the suit has had viral growth. Tens of thousands of people and businesses have contacted the firm, asking to join.
“I’m looking at my email right now and there were 290 contacts with us between this morning and now, that’s how fast it’s growing,” Alters said.
But U.S. law, Jarvis said, sets a high bar for suing other countries within U.S. courts. Suits against other governments are regulated by the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which establishes a blanket prohibition against suing other sovereign nations unless a legal action falls under one of the act’s nine exceptions.
“Courts understandably take a very tough line when a plaintiff says ‘but my case fits within one of the exceptions,’” Jarvis said.
Matthew Moore, the lead lawyer on the suit, says that the case against China falls under not one, but two exceptions. “There is a precedent for bringing foreign governments to the table and being able to collect on judgment,” Moore said.
The government of the People’s Republic of China has yet to be served with the lawsuit, says Moore, since he plans to file an amended complaint with more parties in the near future.
Representatives of the Peoples Republic of China, at their consulate in Washington, D.C., did not respond to a request for comment.