Lawsuit: China hid virus information, should pay billions

Attorney accuses government of 'falsehoods' and 'destruction of evidence'

By Ken Ritter
Associated Press

LAS VEGAS (AP) - An attorney who represented victims of the Las Vegas shooting massacre has filed a federal lawsuit against China's government over the new coronavirus, saying Tuesday that officials hid information about the outbreak and that U.S. small businesses should receive billions of dollars in damages. The case seeks class-action status for 32 million businesses for lost income and profits.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of five Law Vegas businesses, claims that China's government should have shared more information about the virus but intimidated doctors, scientists, journalists and lawyers while allowing the COVID-19 respiratory illness to spread, attorney Robert Eglet told reporters.

"They engaged in falsehoods, misinformation, cover-ups and destruction of evidence," the attorney said.

Eglet represented about 2,500 people last year in an $800 million settlement with Mandalay Bay casino-hotel owner MGM Resorts International stemming from the deadliest mass killing in modern American history - the October 2017 shooting that left 58 people dead and more than 850 injured at an open-air concert on the Las Vegas Strip.

Eglet also won hundreds of millions of dollars in verdicts and settlements against pharmaceutical firms and healthcare companies after a Las Vegas hepatitis C outbreak and is handling Nevada's largest lawsuits against drug manufacturers accused of fueling the nation's opioid addiction crisis.

His plaintiffs in the coronavirus case filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Nevada are owners of a restaurant, a flower seller, two real estate businesses and a CPR training firm. Eglet said the five are representative of tens of millions of other businesses that could become plaintiffs because they have also suffered economically whose damages could end up in the trillions of dollars.

China's government was reckless and negligent as the virus spread, the attorney said.

"If they had been transparent with the world this could have been stopped in Wuhan," Eglet said, referring to the Chinese city identified as the original epicenter of the outbreak. "The world could have come together and gotten the right scientists to Wuhan and stopped it right there."

Chinese Embassy officials in the U.S. did not immediately respond to email messages seeking comment. Court records did not say whether the lawsuit has been served to Chinese officials or their representatives and no defense attorney was identified.

But in comments Tuesday before Eglet announced the lawsuit, China's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Geng Shuang, said there is "great anger and strong opposition from the Chinese people" on use of the terms "Chinese virus" and "Wuhan virus" to describe the coronavirus. President Donald Trump is among those who have called it the "Chinese virus" and defended that term.

"I want to point out that it was the U.S. side that started this argument," the foreign ministry spokesman said. "I wish certain people in the U.S. could heed the reasonable voice at home and from the international community and stop making wrongful remarks that stigmatize China."

More than 400,000 people worldwide have been diagnosed with COVID-19, including more than 51,000 in the U.S. More than 18,000 people have died, including more than 600 Americans. In Nevada, 278 people have tested positive for the virus. Four have died, all in the Las Vegas area.

Health officials have said most patients exhibit mild or moderate fever and cough. The vast majority recover. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, severe symptoms including pneumonia can occur.

The lawsuit points to trillions of dollars in trade between the U.S. and China, and says small U.S. businesses deserve compensation from China, its ministries including health and emergency affairs and Hubei provincial and Wuhan city authorities for negligence, creating a public nuisance and "liability for conducting ultrahazardous activity."

Eglet said he knew of two other lawsuits filed in Florida and Texas against China stemming from the outbreak. He said he believed those cases are overly broad in classes of plaintiffs and will be unwieldy. The Las Vegas case focuses on businesses with 500 or less employees, he said.

"This class-action is just laser-focused on small businesses," he said. "This lawsuit is not directed at the people of China. No one is blaming the people of China and no one is blaming Chinese-Americans. They are as much a victim of the Chinese government's actions and inactions as the rest of the world."

Eglet said the case is based on the U.S. Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act of 1976 and U.S. federal law "for acts outside the territory of the U.S. that have a direct effect on the United States." It could take years to resolve, he said.

Published: Thu, Mar 26, 2020