In a first, Missouri sues China over coronavirus economic losses

By Jan Wolfe

(Reuters) – Missouri on Tuesday became the first U.S. state to sue the Chinese government over its handling of the coronavirus, saying that China’s response to the outbreak that originated in Wuhan city led to devastating economic losses in the state.

The civil lawsuit, filed in federal court by Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, alleges negligence, among other claims. The complaint alleges Missouri and its residents have suffered possibly tens of billions of dollars in economic damages, and seeks cash compensation.

“The Chinese government lied to the world about the danger and contagious nature of COVID-19, silenced whistleblowers, and did little to stop the spread of the disease,” Schmitt, a Republican, said in a statement. “They must be held accountable for their actions.”

The lawsuit also accuses the Chinese government of making the pandemic worse by “hoarding” masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE).

U.S. President Donald Trump, also a Republican, initially lavished praise on China and his counterpart Xi Jinping for the official response to the outbreak, which has since spread to infect more than 2.5 million people worldwide. But he and other senior U.S. officials have also referred to it as the “Chinese virus” and in recent days have ramped up their rhetoric.

China is already facing similar lawsuits filed in U.S. courts on behalf of U.S. business owners.

International law experts told Reuters that efforts to hold China liable for the coronavirus in U.S. courts will likely fail.

A legal doctrine called sovereign immunity offers foreign governments broad protection from being sued in U.S. courts, said Tom Ginsburg, a professor of international law at the University of Chicago.

Ginsburg said he thought the recent flurry of lawsuits against China serve a political end for Republican leaders facing an election in November.

“We are seeing a lot of people on the political right focus on the China issue to cover up for the U.S. government’s own errors,” Ginsburg said.

Trump initially downplayed the seriousness of the coronavirus, which has killed more than 43,000 people in the United States out of nearly 800,000 cases as of Tuesday.

The outbreak has also forced state governors to declare stay-at-home orders that have shuttered businesses and social activities, leading a record 22 million people to seek unemployment benefits in the past month.

“If the United States wants to bring claims against China, it will have to do so in an international forum,” said Chimène Keitner, an international law professor at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco. “There is no civil jurisdiction over such claims in U.S. courts.”

(Reporting by Jan Wolfe; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

U.S. judge wants quick review of sealed documents tied to Epstein

Attorney Sigrid McCawley, lawyer for Jeffrey Epstein's alleged victims, speaks outside Manhattan Federal Court following a hearing in a defamation lawsuit filed by one of Jeffrey Epstein's alleged victims, Virginia Giuffre, in New York, U.S., September 4, 2019. REUTERS/Bryan R Smith

By Brendan Pierson

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A New York federal judge said on Wednesday she would move quickly in deciding whether to unseal hundreds of court documents linked to financier Jeffrey Epstein, who died last month while awaiting trial on sex trafficking charges.

The documents are part of a civil lawsuit filed by one of Epstein’s alleged victims, Virginia Giuffre, against Epstein’s former associate, Ghislaine Maxwell. Giuffre has said Epstein and Maxwell trafficked her for sex while she was a teenager.

Giuffre sued Maxwell in 2015 and accused the British socialite of defaming her by calling her a liar. Maxwell has denied the claims, and the case settled on undisclosed terms earlier this year.

More than 900 court filings in the case remained secret until early August, when a federal appeals court unsealed about 2,000 pages of documents. The court ordered U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska to review each of the remaining documents to determine whether they should be unsealed.

At a hearing on Wednesday, Preska gave Giuffre, Maxwell and other interested parties two weeks to divide the documents into three categories. Preska said one category of documents – those that could have been used by a judge to decide core issues in the case – are most likely to be unsealed.

The parties will then will have a chance to make arguments about what should be public and what should remain secret.

Jeffrey Pagliuca, Maxwell’s lawyer, said at the hearing that the documents contained “hundreds” of names of people who would need to be notified and given a chance to object before they were made public.

On Tuesday, lawyers for an anonymous man urged Preska in a letter to keep the names of people who were not parties to the lawsuit secret.

Epstein was arrested on July 6 and pleaded not guilty to sex trafficking charges. Prosecutors said he recruited numerous underage girls to give him massages and then sexually abused them.

The wealthy 66-year-old money manager was found dead on Aug. 10 in his cell at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Lower Manhattan. An autopsy concluded that he hanged himself.

(Reporting by Brendan Pierson in New York; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Paul Simao)

Supreme Court takes up Mexican border shooting dispute

FILE PHOTO: The Supreme Court stands in Washington, U.S., February 15, 2019. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/File Photo

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday agreed to decide whether the family of a Mexican teenager fatally shot while on Mexican soil by U.S. Border Patrol agent who fired from across the border in Texas can pursue a civil rights lawsuit in U.S. courts.

It marks the second time the Supreme Court will consider the legal dispute involving Sergio Adrian Hernandez Guereca, who was 15 when he was slain in 2010 along the U.S.-Mexico border – a case that now will be decided during heightened U.S. tensions with Mexico over President Donald Trump’s border policies.

The justices will decide whether to allow the family’s civil lawsuit seeking monetary damages against Border Patrol agent Jesus Mesa to proceed.

The court previously ruled in the same case in 2017, but did not decide the important legal question of whether Hernandez’s family could sue for a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, which bars unjustified deadly force. The lawsuit also states that Hernandez’s right to due process under the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment was violated.

The justices instead threw out a ruling by the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that had barred the lawsuit and asked the lower court to reconsider the matter. The 5th Circuit last year again ruled against Hernandez’s relatives, prompting them to seek Supreme Court intervention for a second time.

The high court’s ruling likely also will affect a similar cross-bordering shooting case in which Border Patrol agent Lonnie Swartz fatally shot Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez, a 16-year-old Mexican citizen, from across the border in Arizona. That case is also pending at the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court, with its conservative majority, has been generally reluctant to extend the scope of civil rights protections. For example, it ruled in 2017 that former U.S. officials who served under President George W. Bush could not be sued over the treatment of non-American citizen detainees rounded up in New York after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

The Trump administration, which has taken a tough stance on border security and other immigration issues, has urged the court not to allow the Hernandez and Rodriguez lawsuits.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

U.S. top court will not revive verdict against Palestinian Authority, PLO

FILE PHOTO: Police officers stand in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, DC, U.S., January 19, 2018. REUTERS/Eric Thayer/File Photo

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Palestinian Authority and Palestine Liberation Organization gained a legal victory at the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday as the justices refused to consider reinstating a $655.5 million jury award won against them by 11 American families over militant attacks in Israel.

The court declined to hear the families’ appeal of a lower court’s 2016 ruling throwing out the jury award secured in a lawsuit brought under the Anti-Terrorism Act, a law that lets American victims of international terrorism seek damages in U.S. courts.

The families had looked to hold the Palestinian Authority and PLO liable for six shootings and bombings between 2002 and 2004 in the Jerusalem area that killed 33 people, including several Americans, and wounded more than 450.

“It’s outrageous that the murderous Palestinian Authority is allowed to kill innocent civilians and not have to pay any cost. This is a horrible travesty of justice for the families and we will not let it stand,” said Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, president of the Shurat HaDin-Israel Law Center, which represents the American families.

Gassan Baloul, a lawyer for the Palestinian defendants, said he was “gratified” that the Supreme Court refused to hear the case. The ruling by the New York-based 2nd U.S. Circuit Court that the high court left in place “respects the constitutional limits on the jurisdiction of U.S. courts,” Baloul added.

President Donald Trump’s administration had sided with the Palestinian Authority and PLO in the dispute, urging the justices not to take up the case because the specific claims could not be brought under the Anti-Terrorism Act.

“The United States condemns acts of terror in the strongest terms and the Department of Justice is committed to prosecuting those who commit terrorist attacks against innocent human beings to the fullest extent that the law allows,” U.S. Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said.

“We will continue to support wherever possible all lawful actions to fight terrorism and provide redress to the victims of terrorist attacks and their families,” Kupec added.

The attacks at the center of the lawsuit have been attributed to the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and Hamas. Lead plaintiff Mark Sokolow, his wife and their two daughters were injured in a 2002 suicide bombing in Jerusalem.

JURISDICTION QUESTION

The 2nd Circuit ordered that the civil lawsuit, which began in January 2004, be dismissed. The appeals court said the attacks occurred “entirely outside” U.S. territory, and found no evidence that Americans were targeted. As a result, American courts do not have jurisdiction to hear the claims, it said.

The families said late PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, who died in 2004, and his agents routinely arranged for payments to attackers and to families of militants who died. The Palestinian Authority and PLO have said they condemned the attacks and blamed them on rogue individuals within the organizations acting on their own.

In 2015, after a six-week trial, a federal jury in Manhattan awarded the families $218.5 million, which was tripled automatically to $655.5 million under the Anti-Terrorism Act.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs said the appeals court decision “eviscerates the Anti-Terrorism Act” by severely limiting what cases can be heard in U.S. courts. They argued that Congress wrote the law specifically to apply to attacks that took place outside the United States in which U.S. citizens were injured or killed, whether or not Americans were specifically targeted.

In a separate case on a similar theme, the Supreme Court in February blocked a group of Americans injured in a 1997 suicide bombing in Jerusalem from seizing ancient Persian artifacts from a Chicago museum to satisfy a $71.5 million court judgment against Iran, which they had accused of complicity in the attack.

The Supreme Court in another case is weighing whether Jordan-based Arab Bank Plc can be sued over legal claims that it helped finance militant attacks in Israel and the Palestinian territories. A ruling is due by the end of June.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem; Editing by Will Dunham)