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A bill to hold China accountable for coronavirus by opening the U.S. legal system to permit millions of American virus patients to sue China and the Chinese Communist Party for damages has been announced by a U.S. senator. If passed, the bill could allow for the largest negligence lawsuit in world history.
“The reason we have this pandemic is because the Chinese communist government unleashed it on the world,” Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., said. He has introduced legislation that would provide redress for those hit by the virus or its consequences, by stripping China of its sovereign immunity and letting Americans file lawsuits in U.S. courts seeking damages against Beijing.
“They suppressed the evidence. They suppressed the doctors. They jailed the doctors even. And now we’re dealing with this terrible disease,” the senator said. “So the victims of this disease in our country ought to be able to go to our courts and sue the Chinese government to hold them accountable and to get damages for it.”
The bill, known as the Justice for Victims of Coronavirus Act, would not only make the Chinese government liable for civil claims in U.S. courts, but would also penalize China for its alleged negligence and cover-up when the virus first emerged in Wuhan.
“Throughout the pandemic, they have lied about the facts, both about the virus itself and also what’s going on in China. So, make no mistake, the Chinese government is responsible for the extent of this damage, they are responsible for the pandemic that the world is now suffering, and that’s why they should be on the hook,” Hawley told Fox News.
According to the bill, China allegedly “concealed the emergence and spread” of the virus,” engaged in a pattern of “silencing medical professionals, journalists, and academic researchers,” and worked on “halting research and destroying or otherwise denying access by Chinese and international health authorities to COVID-19 viral samples and relevant medical information.” Beijing is also accused of “waging a global propaganda offensive” to hide its mishandling of the outbreak.
The potential damages, Hawley told Fox News, could be in the trillions of dollars.
“Citizens who have been damaged by this pandemic can go to a court, an American court, and can sue China and ask for relief,” Hawley explained. “The court would have the ability to attach Chinese assets, government assets in this country, so that the court would actually have the ability to have damages awarded to those victims who have come in. … This is a common-sense measure that will allow victims real relief.”
Experts have said suing China would not be easy. The Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976 generally has blocked such lawsuits, declaring that foreign states “shall be immune from the jurisdiction of the courts of the United States and of the states.” But, there have been exceptions and successful actions.
Last year, a federal judge awarded the parents of Otto Warmbier, the 22-year-old Ohio college student who was arrested and tortured by the regime of Kim Jong Un and died after his release, a $500 million judgment against North Korea. Warmbier’s parents, Cindy and Fred, have been seeking to attach North Korean assets around the globe to collect.
The families of passengers who were killed in the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, were awarded between $5 and $10 million each against the government of Libya.
Two families of victims killed on 9/11 won a $104 million verdict against the government of Iraq.
In 2016 the U.S. Senate passed the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, which enabled 1,500 survivors and 850 families of 9/11 victims to file a massive lawsuit against Saudi Arabia for also allegedly helping the hijackers. That suit has been winding through the courts.
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On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that Sudan can be held responsible for punitive damages from American families of victims of Al Qaeda’s 1998 embassy bombing in Africa. Sudan has already settled with victims of the 2000 attack on the USS Cole warship in Yemen.
“It is easy based upon what has been reported to point the finger at China, but that is a little bit different than what the law will actually permit,” cautioned Philadelphia lawyer Jim Beasley Jr. of the Beasley Firm. In 2003, he won the suit against Iraq, having brought an action against that country as well as Afghanistan, Al Qaeda and Usama Bin Laden on behalf of the families of two 9/11 victims. Beasley won the default judgment of $104 million in 2003, but the U.S. State Department objected and appealed. A federal district court blocked the payment. The U.S. government had argued the money needed to go to rebuild schools in Afghanistan and Iraq instead.
Most of the previous cases against foreign nations have been brought under terrorism statutes, and Beasley said it will be difficult to prove China’s legal responsibility for causing a pandemic versus finding fault from an intentional act.
“Even if everything that people are saying that China did is true, it is still a very contagious virus,” Beasley said. “How do you prove that it wouldn’t be here but for China’s behavior? Are some of the people that are bringing a claim, did they wear masks when they were supposed to, did they stand 6 feet apart from everybody, then how do you calculate damages, and then how are you going to secure any assets to satisfy any potential default judgment that we get?”
And, Beasley said Beijing may not only simply thumb its nose at the U.S. legal system, but that the State Department will ultimately move to block any damages, as it did in his successful case against Iraq.
“China’s not going to respond, so to the extent that this somehow proceeds and it ends up in a default judgment, then you end up having a collective, and the State Department’s not going to let that happen because issues between nations, especially sovereign nations, are the province of diplomacy, not the United States courts,” he said. “There are 10 different reasons why I don’t think it will work.”
The Chinese government did not respond to Fox News’ request for comment on Hawley’s bill, but last week the Foreign Ministry criticized the efforts by Republican senators to hold China accountable for coronavirus.
“This act sponsored by several U.S. lawmakers shows no respect for facts,” ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said. “By pushing for investigations based on the presumption of guilt, it is meant to shirk responsibility for the U.S. fumbling response to China. This is highly immoral. We are firmly opposed to it.”
Hawley, who previously served as the Missouri attorney general, was undeterred.
Hawley also proposed a “Working Group to Quantify Harm” that would identify the extent of the economic damage, and an international commission to investigate China’s actions and eventually hold China accountable to prevent a recurrence. The commission also would examine the ways in which China has gained influence in the World Health Organization, which prompted the U.N. agency to “spread false, incomplete or misleading information” and “to praise” the Chinese government all the while Beijing was working “to conceal the emergence and spread of COVID-19.”
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Hawley said the same measures that have been used successfully in the past on behalf of Americans in other cases, should be enacted for this crisis.
“Let’s take away that immunity of the Beijing government, the communist government. Let’s strip it. We know how to do it. We’ve done it many times in the past. Let’s do it now and let’s give victims the ability to have their day in court and to get damages for what they have suffered,” he insisted.
Fox News’ Ben Evansky contributed to this report.