When I first heard the recent news that Florida’s Berman Law Group had the chutzpah to sue China for trillions of dollars for allegedly causing COVID-19, I thought that they must be a bunch of ambulance-chasing shysters who were fronting for President Trump to help him “stick it” to China. But these opinions were wrong. The firm actually is Democratic Party leaning and employs Presidential candidate Joe Biden’s brother as its senior advisor. What’s going on?
I trained as a lawyer at Harvard but am not always proud of the legal profession. From 1973, the year I graduated to 1993, a Harris survey showed people’s confidence in lawyers plummeted from 24% to 7%. In a December 2019 Gallup poll, a mere 4% rated the “honesty and ethical standards” of lawyers as “very high. Among the most despised are personal injury lawyers, the modern day equivalent of medieval alchemists who tried to turn lead into gold. The alchemists never succeeded but some of these lawyers did.
Many people are familiar with the 1994 McDonald’s hot coffee lawsuit in which a woman spilled hot coffee on herself and suffered serious burns. Common sense dictates that a reasonable person (the legal standard) would know that very hot coffee could cause injuries and to be careful, but her lawyers turned hot coffee into cold cash with a nearly three million dollar judgment.
Similarly, Berman hopes to turn people’s suffering in America into cash awards of which Berman would get a huge cut. Their odds in this case, however, are even less than winning the lottery. But they’ve already won by generating millions of dollars in free publicity for their firm, besmirching China’s reputation in the process.
Berman seeks damages for those who have suffered personal injuries, wrongful deaths, property damage, etc. without one iota of proof due to, among other things, “China’s failure to contain the COVID-19 virus, despite their ability to have stopped the spread of the virus in its early stages.” They accuse China of creating “essentially a giant Petri dish” in and around Wuhan and allege that China was “conducting ultra-hazardous activity at the Wuhan Institute of Virology” and “that COVID-19 escaped from the Wuhan lab because of lax controls”.
The relevant US statute, the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act, is based on the age-old concept that the king can do no wrong and thus a government is immune from being sued. There are several narrow exceptions that Berman hopes to come under but they stretch facts and logic beyond the breaking point.
Jilin University International Law Professor He Zhipeng called the suit “wrong and absurd, lacking evidence and logic.” He said that “as for the alleged delay in decision-making, it is obviously a misunderstanding. Decision making on public issues is a very complicated. Every government must consider a variety of factors when taking decisions. Up to now, facts have proved that the Chinese government’s decision is correct, timely, and effective, and there is no obvious intentional or negligent delay. Especially if we compare this with the measures taken by governments around the world, it is quite clear there is no intentional delay.”
Foreign law lecturer, School of International Law, China University of Political Science and Law Don Lewis was even more blunt. He said that “it looks to be a spurious lawsuit – but who knows in this highly politically charged atmosphere where US-China relations appear to have hit rock bottom.”
Both scholars are right on the law. Mr. Lewis is also correct that the US is so politicized that normal legal precedents don’t necessarily apply any more. The US District Court Judge assigned to the case, Ursula Ungaro, was appointed by the first President Bush and I believe from her record that she will be fair and is likely to dismiss the case.
It is no small irony that Berman has not focused on the true culprit: Donald J. Trump who failed to act for nearly 11 weeks from when China informed the World Health Organization of the virus’ existence on December 31st, instead belittling the possibility of the coming health emergency to prop up the stock market and his chances for re-election; doing nothing to mobilize federal resources.
Sadly, millions in America and elsewhere will suffer as a result. It didn’t have to be this way. Trump’s quick action would have dramatically reduced cases. And much of the five trillion dollars promised by G20 members to inoculate world citizens and the global economy from economic meltdown could have instead been repurposed to preparing the world against new coronavirus pandemics and building a community of a shared healthy future for mankind.