Experts say Mississippi’s suit against China likely not going anywhere

Updated: Jan. 12, 2021 at 5:48 PM CST
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Legal experts say Mississippi’s lawsuit against the People’s Republic of China likely won’t go very far.

And even if it does, there’s little likelihood that China would ever pay Mississippi for damages incurred by the coronavirus.

“The hurdles are insurmountable,” said Matt Steffey, a professor at the Mississippi College School of Law. “I’ve got to think the attorney general’s staff knows this. There are many competent lawyers over at the AG’s office.”

In May, Attorney General Lynn Fitch filed suit against the Chinese government and other Chinese entities for the “enormous loss of life, human suffering and economic turmoil experienced by all Mississippians from the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The case was filed in the U.S. District Court of Southern Mississippi.

“Too many Mississippians have suffered as a result of China’s cover-up,” Fitch said at the time. “They must not be allowed to act with impunity. Mississippians deserve justice and I will seek that in court.”

The suit alleges that the Chinese government allowed the virus to spread and then attempted to cover up the outbreak after it began.

Fitch points to the loss of lives and jobs tied to the pandemic, as well as China’s efforts to hoard personal protective equipment (PPE).

The state is seeking all restitution authorized by law.

A similar suit was filed by the state of Missouri.

Steffey said Mississippi’s suit is more a political stunt than a serious complaint.

He points to the fact that numerous news articles have been cited in the court records as evidence.

Among sources, Fitch cites an April 14, 2020, article from the Washington Post reporting that state department cables had warned of safety concerns at the Wuhan Institute, a lab at the center of the coronavirus controversy.

An April 17 report from Fox News also was cited, which shows the U.S. was investigating whether the virus escaped from the lab in question.

Other news sources cited include the South China Morning Press, National Review, CNN, the New York Times, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, The Straight Times, Reuters, National Public Radio, Market Watch, Mississippi Today, and the Clarion-Ledger.

“There are so many levels of hearsay and speculation, some of the things you don’t expect to find in a serious lawsuit on the merits,” he said. “But it makes for good press copy.”

According to district court records, summonses in the case were filed in December. Fitch’s office is currently working with a company that will provide the translation and service of process. The cost for that service had not been determined.

“That is actually part of the discussion right now,” said Fitch spokeswoman Colby Jordan. “We are getting quotes from additional companies to ensure that we will have the lowest cost and the highest quality for the taxpayers.”

Merits of the case aside, Steffey and Ronald Rychlak, a professor of law at the University of Mississippi School of Law, say suing an international entity poses numerous challenges.

“You have to convince an American judge that their jurisdiction is appropriate over the subject matter and the parties. Then, you have to get the defendant to cooperate, which seems unlikely,” said Rychlak, who was speaking on broad terms and not specifically on the state’s case.

Rychlak said the one recourse would likely be freezing any local assets held by the entity. Sans that, foreign entities would have little incentive to participate in an international case.

The Ole Miss professor posed another potential barrier to the case well: the U.S. government.

“You have entities in the U.S., such as the federal government, that are concerned about states interfering with international relations,” he said. “It’s entirely possible they might not want to see a lawsuit like this go forward. International relations are normally a matter for the federal government, not the state(s).”

In the Missouri case, two attorneys with Lawyers for Upholding International Law filed an amicus brief arguing the suit would not be in the best interest of the U.S. and China relations.

That case was brought by Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt last April and was filed last year in the District Court for Missouri’s Eastern District. Summons were issued for the defendants in July.

The attorneys argue that the complaint “clearly interferes with U.S. foreign policy,” and that China has immunity under the federal Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.

“The attorney general of Missouri probably aims to secure a victory in the court of public opinion rather than in the court of law,” the brief reads. “As such, it is part of a highly polarized debate between the U.S. and China, which is having a corrosive impact on the international political order.”

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