US lawyers launch historic class action to sue China for trillions

Published by The Mail on Sunday (19th April, 2020)

Lawyers in the US have launched a landmark legal action to sue China for trillions of dollars over the coronavirus pandemic, accusing its Communist leaders of negligence for allowing the outbreak to erupt and then covering it up. 

The class action, which involves thousands of claimants from 40 countries including Britain and the US, was filed in Florida last month. 

A second case launched this month on behalf of healthcare workers accuses China of hoarding life-saving medical supplies. 

The legal challenges – set to be followed by another from Israeli human rights lawyers who specialise in suing states for terrorism – ramp up the pressure on President Xi Jinping to account fully for his country’s actions. 

There are calls also for the United Nations to set up an inquiry to establish how the coronavirus broke out in the city of Wuhan and then spread so fast around the world. 

This follows a warning last week from Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, who is running the Government while Boris Johnson recovers from the virus, that it could not be ‘business as usual’ after the crisis. 

‘We will have to ask the hard questions about how it came about and how it couldn’t have been stopped earlier,’ he said. 

China faces accusations that it suppressed data, blocked several outside teams of public health experts and silenced doctors trying to warn about the epidemic when it broke out late last year.

It has also not been established if the source of the virus was a market selling live exotic animals, as first claimed, or if it is linked to research laboratories in Wuhan. 

The US legal claim was launched by Berman Law Group, a Miamibased firm that employs the brother of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden as an adviser. 

Chief strategist Jeremy Alters said: ‘China’s leaders must be held accountable for their actions. Our goal is to expose the truth.’ Three years ago, the firm won a $1.2 billion (£960 million) case against China over the manufacture of defective building materials.

Lawyers argue that although nations have legal immunity, there are exceptions under US law for personal or property damages and for actions abroad that impact on businesses in their own borders. 

Plaintiffs include Olivier Babylone, 38, an estate agent from Croydon, South London, whose income has fallen by two-thirds and who was treated in hospital earlier this month for the virus. 

He said: ‘I have been financially hurt, but many people have lost their lives so I was lucky, and the NHS was fantastic. We need to know who is responsible.’ 

Joining him in the class action is Lorraine Caggiano, an administrator from New York who caught the virus along with nine other family members after attending a wedding. 

Her father and aunt both died last month. She said: ‘I am not expecting money. It is a symbolic gesture that we are fighting back. 

‘I want to know how the world has been turned on its head, with people dying and companies going down the drain. We must make sure it never happens again.’ 

A second legal case is being prepared by Shurat HaDin, an Israeli law centre that has represented victims of terrorism around the world. The centre’s Aviel Leitner said it would also launch its legal action in the US since ‘most other countries would be scared of China’s economic weight and retribution’. 

The lawyers will argue that Beijing’s negligence and reckless behaviour was so bad that, as with terrorism, the state cannot hide behind sovereign immunity.  ‘China will fight it tooth and nail. If proved negligent, it would be catastrophe for them,’ said Mr Leitner. 

Meanwhile, leading British human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson has called for the United Nations to set up an inquiry into the origins of Covid-19. This follows claims that the World Health Organisation, its public health body, failed in its duty by slavishly following China, which has led President Donald Trump to cut all US funding. 

Mr Robertson, a former UN appeal judge, said the consequences of not tackling the virus at an early stage had been calamitous and facts were being distorted by propaganda and political point-scoring. 

‘Our international well-being demands an independent and objective report into this disaster, not to allocate blame but to write its truthful history and learn lessons,’ he said.

He added that Britain should use its influence as a permanent UN Security Council member to urge a formal inquiry, forcing the WHO and China to co-operate. ‘China would suffer international hostility and perhaps economic sanctions if it refused to explain all that had happened. It has a duty to tell the truth to a world that has suffered so much.’ 

Dr Yang Jianli, a leading Chinese dissident, called on democratic nations to back an inquiry, but doubted that the UN would ‘have the guts’.

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