The US state of Missouri says it is suing the Chinese government over its handling of the coronavirus which it says has led to severe economic losses.
In the lawsuit, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt alleges China did little to stop the spread of the virus.
Mr Schmitt claims Missouri residents have suffered possibly tens of billions of dollars in economic damages.
China’s foreign ministry denounced the move, saying the “frivolous lawsuit has no factual or legal basis”.
A spokesperson said: “Really absurd. Based on the principle of sovereign equality, US courts have NO jurisdiction over the Chinese government.”
Legal experts have also questioned the move and how far it will get. A legal doctrine called sovereign immunity offers foreign governments broad protection from being sued in US courts.
“There is an exception for torts committed in the United States by officials acting in an official capacity; the paradigm would be something like a car accident in an embassy car,” said Tom Ginsburg, a professor of international law at the University of Chicago.
The civil lawsuit, filed on Tuesday, is against the Chinese government, Chinese Communist Party and other Chinese officials and institutions.
“In Missouri, the impact of the virus is very real – thousands have been infected and many have died, families have been separated from dying loved ones, small businesses are shuttering their doors, and those living paycheck to paycheck are struggling to put food on their table,” Mr Schmitt said in a statement.
“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,” Mr Schmitt said. “They must be held accountable for their actions.”
It will also cost the state of Missouri money to sue the Chinese government. “Taxpayers fund the attorney general’s office, and any time spent by staff lawyers on this lawsuit is time not spent on other important matters,” added Chimène Keitner, an international law professor at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco.
In a list of “key factual allegations” the Missouri lawsuit also accuses the Chinese government of making the pandemic worse by “hoarding” personal protective equipment (PPE). China has strongly denied mishandling the crisis.
“There’s an old joke in American politics that in every state the AG stands for the Attorney General, but it also stands for Aspiring Governor,” said Stu Loeser, a New York-based media strategist.
Prof Ginsburg believes the Missouri lawsuit has “publicity value” and predicts other states will follow suit. “In my opinion their governors and attorneys general should spend their efforts trying to keep their populations safe,” he added.