U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw Files Bill to Allow Americans to Sue China Over COVID-19 Damages | Dallas Observer


'Uncharted Territory': U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw Thinks Americans Should be Allowed to Sue China

U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw thinks Americans should sue China.
U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw thinks Americans should sue China. "Dan Crenshaw" by Gage Skidmore is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
Some Texas Republicans like to file flashy lawsuits. In an attempt to subvert the election last year, Attorney General Ken Paxton sued four states that helped deliver President Joe Biden's win. Later, Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller sued the Biden administration for “discriminating” against white farmers.

Now, U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw is doing his best to ensure that everyday Americans can see the Chinese government in court.

Earlier this month, Crenshaw reintroduced legislation that would give Americans the ability to sue the People’s Republic of China over COVID-19 damages. The way Crenshaw sees it, the “Holding the Chinese Communist Party Accountable Act of 2021” would offer ordinary U.S. citizens some solace, considering “people died and lives were destroyed” by the virus.

"[China] lied and they tried to cover up their role in starting and spreading this global pandemic,” Crenshaw said at a press conference last week.
The novel coronavirus is largely understood to have started in China, but its exact origin remains a mystery. In recent weeks, the theory that the virus escaped from a Wuhan lab has begun to gain more traction.

Crenshaw believes the Chinese government engaged in a cover-up that ultimately wrecked millions of American lives. Yet while his bill may sound far-fetched, some legal scholars say it isn’t without merit.

The Republican congressman is claiming that China’s supposed cover-up contributed to COVID-19 spreading farther and faster than it would have otherwise. That could be considered a tortious, or wrongful, act. And if China doesn’t pay for the damage it caused by coming to an agreement with the U.S., it could potentially face millions of separate claims in federal court.

Such legislation is “highly unusual," said James Meernik, a regents professor of political science at the University of North Texas. As of now, U.S. citizens aren’t allowed to sue foreign governments without first gaining special permission from Congress.

There are laws to prevent people from constantly threatening, or actually suing, foreign governments, Meernik said.

When Crenshaw introduced the legislation last year, it didn’t even get a committee hearing. Meernik expects the reintroduced version won’t get very far this time, either.

“At the end of the day, given that it’s unlikely to pass and China is never going to do anything that Dan Crenshaw wants, it’s really just kind of a political stunt to get attention,” said Meernik, who is also the director of UNT’s Castleberry Peace Institute.

Even if an ordinary citizen could sue the Chinese government, that country is unlikely to entertain such a lawsuit, he added. The U.S. government would likely do the same if some random foreign citizen sued it.

"If it passes, we’ll be in uncharted territory.” – Michael Maslanka, assistant law professor

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At the same time that Crenshaw is blaming China for spreading COVID-19, he's also pushing to lift federal mask mandates.

Last week, the Republican congressman introduced legislation that would end the mask requirement for public transportation. Such seemingly incongruous legislative efforts are examples of a politician looking to score political points, Meernik said.

"[There are] a lot of members of Congress who are trying to fundraise off of making these claims or trying to push some kind of legislation that’s really again a stunt," he said. "And these folks are just making a lot of money off of being hysterical about stuff."

If passed, Crenshaw’s law would be the only way that the People’s Republic of China could be held to account in an American courtroom, said Michael Maslanka, an assistant professor of law at UNT Dallas College of Law. There are other “long-shot” methods, but this law would go straight “to the heart of the matter.”

Maslanka pointed to the Watergate scandal, saying: “It’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up.” Crenshaw’s bill would work similarly, he said. No matter the true origin of the disease, if the People’s Republic of China took action to distort COVID-19’s nature or existence, it could be held liable.

Still, it could be hard to argue certain cases in court, Maslanka said. For instance, some may have difficulty proving that their family member died as a result of COVID-19 and not some other affliction. It could also be tricky to claim that a business shuttered because of the pandemic and that it wasn’t already on its way out.

Maslanka thinks Crenshaw’s bill is very well thought-out. A 1976 law prevents American litigants from getting involved in international relations, but this bill would effectively remove that blockage.

“If this law passes — of course, I don’t know if President Biden would sign it ... it would work,” he said. Some may call it a stunt, “but this is gold-plated, and if it passes, we’ll be in uncharted territory.”
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Simone Carter is a staff news reporter at the Dallas Observer who graduated from the University of North Texas' Mayborn School of Journalism. Her favorite color is red, but she digs Miles Davis' Kind of Blue.
Contact: Simone Carter

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