Client Alerts

Client Alert: Legal actions demanding reparations from China over COVID-19

Volterra Fietta Client Alert
22 April 2020

A number of legal actions have been brought before national courts and international bodies against the People’s Republic of China, over its alleged failure to contain the COVID-19 outbreak.

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On 21 April 2020, the Attorney General of the State of Missouri announced the State’s filing of a civil lawsuit in the US District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri against the Government of China and Chinese officials and institutions.  The suit claims that alleged actions by China to suppress information, arrest whistleblowers and deny the contagious nature of the Coronavirus led to severe economic damage and loss of life in Missouri.

Although this is the first lawsuit against China by a US state government entity, several class action lawsuits have already been filed in US courts by private groups seeking monetary damages, with some aiming to recover trillions of dollars in damages from China.

These lawsuits face significant legal challenges.  The US Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976 strictly limits the possibility to sue foreign States and their agencies before US courts.  The Act establishes the immunity of States from civil jurisdiction in the US, subject only to very limited exceptions.  The principle of foreign State immunity is widely recognised in international law – the vast majority of States have enacted legislation that provides for sovereign immunity.

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On 3 April 2020, a complaint against China was filed before the United Nations Human Rights Council by the London-based International Council of Jurists, the All India Bar Association and Adish C. Aggarwala – chairman of the All India Bar Association and president of the International Council of Jurists.  According to the complaint, China’s alleged actions violated several norms of international law, including provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Health Regulations (2005), for which it is liable under the International Law Commission’s Draft Articles on Responsibility for International Wrongful Acts 2001.

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It remains to be seen whether disputes over COVID-19 will also arise on an inter-State level.  On 20 April 2020, a group of US Republican lawmakers requested US President Donald Trump to bring a case against China before the International Court of Justice.  The grounds on which to do so were not clearly identified.

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Apart from China, residents of a suburban New York City county have initiated a class action against the World Health Organisation over alleged failures to adequately respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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For further information, please contact info@volterrafietta.com.