St. Petersburg, FLORIDA — Before the coronavirus outbreak, Saundra Andringa-Meuer was a healthy 61-year-old mother of six who never smoked or drank alcohol. Then she became seriously ill with the disease after traveling from her Wisconsin home to help her son move from college in Connecticut.
She was hospitalised in March, ending up in a coma and on a ventilator for 14 days. Doctors told her family she had a slim chance to live. When she emerged, she was told she was the sickest COVID-19 patient they had seen survive.
Now Andringa-Meuer has joined with dozens of other American virus patients and some U.S. businesses in taking a new legal step: They are attempting to sue China over the spread of the virus, which has killed at least 75,000 people in the United States.
“I do feel that they hid it from the world and from Americans,” she said. “I don’t feel we had to have the loss of life. I don’t think we had to have the economy shut down. It disrupted all of American lives. I do believe we need to right some of these wrongs.”
So far, at least nine lawsuits have been filed in the U.S. against China claiming authorities there did not do enough to corral the virus initially, tried to hide what was happening in the outbreak centre of Wuhan and sought to conceal their actions and what they knew.
Eight of the lawsuits are potential class actions that would represent thousands of people and businesses. One was filed by the attorney general of Missouri, which is so far the only state to take legal action against China.
The cases face several hurdles under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which states that foreign governments cannot be sued in the U.S. unless certain exceptions are met. And those are not easy to prove, experts say.
“We think it’s going to be an uphill battle for them to ultimately take advantage of those exceptions,” said Robert Boone, an attorney in Los Angeles who specialises in class action cases.
One exception involves commercial activity that directly affects the U.S. Another is misconduct inside the U.S. under certain circumstances that is traceable to a foreign government. A third exception is whether the foreign entity explicitly waived its immunity, such as through language in a contract.
Attorneys who have filed the lawsuits say they can prove those claims, and, if they win, find some method of collecting damages, perhaps by seizing Chinese bank accounts or other assets in the U.S. if the Chinese refuse to pay.
In one case filed in Miami federal court on behalf of Andringa-Meurer and many others, attorneys Matthew Moore and Jeremy Alters are suing the Chinese Communist Party as an entity separate from the Chinese government.
“They have their own assets. They are recognised as an independent organisation. We are going to argue they are not a part of the government,” Moore said. “There has been personal injury that happened in the United States.”
Added Alters: “They’re going to have to pay ... We can say, ‘We’re not going to do business with you anymore.’ When you hit them in the (gross domestic product), it hurts.”
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang defended his country’s record of fighting the virus. He said the lawsuit filed by the Missouri attorney general is “very absurd and has no factual and legal basis.”
Since the outbreak began, China has proceeded in an “open, transparent, and responsible manner,” and the U.S. government should “dismiss such vexatious litigation,” he said.
Efforts are underway in Congress and in some state legislatures to make it easier to sue China and other countries. One bill was introduced by Republican U.S. Sens. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee and Martha McSally of Arizona, and GOP U.S. Rep. Lance Gooden of Texas in the House.
“The Chinese government must be held accountable for the pain it’s inflicted across the United States,” McSally said in a statement. The proposed legislation “will give the U.S. a piece of justice.”
In New Jersey, three Republican state lawmakers introduced a resolution urging President Donald Trump and Congress to pass a bill letting citizens sue China for “mishandling” the pandemic.
State Sen. Jim Holzapfel and Assemblymen Greg McGuckin and John Catalano said in a statement that they believe Chinese leaders did little to stop the spread of the virus and that residents and local governments should be legally allowed to recover some of what they lost financially.
It’s not clear if any of the legislation will pass. If the bills were enacted, legal experts say they could open the floodgates for hundreds more lawsuits against China.
“If that immunity were stripped, it’s going to produce a gigantic burden on the court system,” said Boone, the class action lawyer. “That’s a factor that will need to be weighed in deciding whether to pass it.”
As for Andringa-Meurer, she said she’s still somewhat frail but getting better all the time.
“I’m weak, but I’m fabulous. I’m alive,” she said. “I want to give back, not only to the doctors and nurses who gave me the opportunity to live. They are the heroes. But also to all of the Americans who were affected by this.”
(Michael Catalini in Trenton, New Jersey, contributed to this report.)