新冠疫情引发的诉讼风险观察
2020/4/27 8:31:19  点击率[142]  评论[0]
【法宝引证码】
    【学科类别】疫情防控
    【出处】微信公众号:法治与发展研究院
    【写作时间】2020年
    【中文关键字】新冠疫情;诉讼风险
    【全文】

      新冠病毒(COVID-19)疫情的爆发极有可能引发一波针对中华人民共和国(“中国”)、中国共产党、政治分支机构和相关官员的诉讼潮,这是中国之前从未遇到过的情况。目前已有七起相关的集体诉讼在美国提起,之后还会有更多类似的要求巨额损害赔偿的诉讼。另外,美国一个州政府提起了类似诉讼,可能还会有更多的州仿效。此外,类似的诉讼也很可能在其他国家出现。虽然该情形史无前例,但按照以往的相关经验,此类诉讼案件的被告应该做好积极应对的准备。
     
      尽管如此,按照现行法律,针对中国政府机构和官员提起的美国诉讼的风险还是有限而且可控的。在美国,外国政府及其分支机关、机构或部门均受《外国主权豁免法》保护,享有诉讼豁免。同时,以公职人员身份行事的官员个人亦可按照主权豁免的普通法原则而享有诉讼豁免。
     
      《外国主权豁免法》所规定的特殊送达程序会构成美国诉讼申请人面临的首道障碍,仅等待诉讼开始便需花费数月时间。而且可能在走完其他法定程序之后,原告最终还需要向美国国务院寻求协助,通过外交程序完成法律文书的送达。在类似案件中,花费一年以上的时间来解决送达问题并非罕见。
     
      更为重要的是,按照美国法院对相关起诉书的解释,这些起诉书似乎并未提出属于豁免例外的权利主张。目前看来,这些起诉书多是主张中国政府在疫情爆发初期限制医生谈论新冠病毒,或是误导或未能警告国际社会注意疫情。此外,这些起诉书还不同程度地宣称一家政府实验室有可能与最初的疫情爆发有关。原告们提出的权利主张一般都是基于侵权过失、重大过失或者严格责任。还有一份起诉书主张违反美国《反恐法案》,并援引恐怖主义例外对抗主权豁免,然而却未能合理说明被告如何实施恐怖主义行为。尽管《外国主权豁免法》允许提出非商业侵权索赔,但按照“全部侵权”规则,非商业侵权索赔可予适用的最常见的例外情形仅限于完全发生在美国境内的行为。以被告在中国实施的被控行为作为部分依据提出的索赔并不在例外范围内。此外,《外国主权豁免法》还禁止针对涉及“自由裁量职能或责任”的行为提出侵权索赔,而“自由裁量职能或责任”已经被做出较为宽泛的解读,一切带有判断或政策因素、但却不涉及违反法律法规的行为都属于这一范畴。
     
      但是,《外国主权豁免法》相关判例法的复杂程度肯定足以令有创意的法官找到相应方式避开对该部法律的常规解读,使得相关诉讼请求得以成立。正如前文所述,有一份起诉书就援引了《外国主权豁免法》的恐怖主义例外,因此相关原告极有可能会寻找其他创新方式,避过主权豁免限制。对《外国主权豁免法》做出非常规解读的风险将会随着诉讼数量的激增而成倍扩大。然而,中国方面可以设法通过跨区程序将这些诉讼合并转交给只有一名联邦法官的法院,适用该单独的联邦上诉法院的法律进行审理,从而限制上述风险。
     
      中国被告在这些诉讼中的风险更多地取决于美国国会的反应。目前已有部分国会议员声明支持相关立法重新定义主权豁免的保护范围,以确保这些诉讼得以向前推进。
     
      在上一次美国遭受的被认为与外国政府有关的大规模伤亡事件中,美国国会便是如此行事。2001年9月11日的恐怖袭击事件发生后,多名身份显赫的原告律师代表9-11恐怖袭击事件的受害人在多个司法辖区提起多起诉讼。这些诉讼声称沙特政府、政府所拥有之实体、担任政府要职的沙特王室成员以及一大批沙特私营公司、银行及个人全都应当为其通过伊斯兰慈善基金会向基地组织提供的间接资助而承担责任。[1]
     
      沙特政府和政府所拥有之实体曾两次因主权豁免而被初审法院撤销起诉,但在被提起诉讼的14年后,由于美国国会的介入,它们仍第三次在一处上诉法院就相关问题展开诉讼。一直以来,媒体上盛传关于沙特政府可能资助9-11恐怖分子的猜测。结果,原告及其律师成功地说服国会在2016年通过了《对恐怖主义资助者实行法律制裁法案》。该法案对《外国主权豁免法》予以修订,允许就国际恐怖主义行为造成的损害对外国政府提起诉讼。该举措打断了因沙特政府最近一次被撤销起诉而提起的上诉程序,令9-11受害者的代理律所得以继续对沙特政府展开起诉。目前,相关诉讼仍在进行之中。
     
      尽管美国与沙特之间有着长期的盟友关系,且奥巴马政府予以阻挠,同时对沙特提起的诉讼也缺乏支持证据,这部法案最终还是得以通过。奥巴马政府反对这部法案的主要理由是,考虑到美国在国际事务上的深度参与,其他国家也可能考虑颁布国家主权豁免原则的例外条款从而给美国造成一系列的麻烦。由于几个月后就会进行2016年换届选举,国会没人愿意为沙特投票而开罪9-11事件的受害人,《对恐怖主义资助者实行法律制裁法案》得以在参议院以口头表决的方式通过,并在众议院获得全票通过。该提案虽立即遭到奥巴马总统否决,但总统的否决意见却因众议院的大比率反对和参议院97比1的反对表决结果而被推翻。在奥巴马总统的八年任期内,这是唯一一次遭到推翻的否决意见。
     
      中国是否应当为新冠病毒的肆虐担责同样也已成为美国政界和媒体高度关注的问题。在疫情初发的几周内,中国提出的病毒是从武汉华南海鲜市场开始传播的理论在美国被广泛接受。但在越来越多援引美国政府消息的评论机构的推动下,开始有观点认为病毒是从武汉病毒研究所或武汉疾控中心泄露而出,据报道称这两家机构的实验室都在研究蝙蝠体内发现的冠状病毒。武汉病毒研究所发表的研究报告也引发了一种观点,即该实验室开展的实验实际上是编制能够让人体细胞感染的病毒。这些指控均遭到中国主管机关和众多专家的强烈反驳。然而,尽管几乎没有人会怀疑病毒的出现是个意外,但是中国却越来越多地遭到关于对实验室疏于管理的抨击和批评。
     
      此外,甚至还有更多的关注点着眼于中国政府部门为了管控提供给其他国家和世界卫生组织的新冠病毒相关信息而专门采取的各项行动。美国媒体宣称,中国通过一系列政府机构隐瞒和歪曲与新冠病毒相关的事实情况。许多意见认为,这种做法极大地延迟了世界各国本可适时采取的阻断和控制病毒传播的行动。作为对这些报道的回应,美国国会参照《对恐怖主义资助者实行法律制裁法案》的模式推出了两项提案,允许对参与隐瞒或歪曲新冠疫情危机相关事实的中国政府官员实施制裁。[2]
     
      美国政府对于本次流行疫情的应对将成为2020年大选的重要关注点。尽管两党对特朗普总统的执政表现会有不同的意见,但任何一党都不太可能对中国政府的追责问题有所异议。正如美国国会曾在大选前夕以压倒性支持度颁布了《对恐怖主义资助者实行法律制裁法案》一样,在当前的政治环境下,国会很难去反对由若干共和党参议员提议的通过褫夺中国政府主权豁免抗辩理由而保护新冠病毒受害人私人诉讼权的相关立法。[3]
     
      当然,我们可以辩称上述举措并非良策,因为私人诉讼并不适合处理损害范围如此之广且更接近于国家利益的问题。此外,相比《对恐怖主义资助者实行法律制裁法案》所采用的程度更为有限的恐怖主义诉讼例外,在侵权索赔中褫夺主权豁免是对国际惯例的更大程度的悖离。尽管特朗普政府可能不会太在意这些国际法原则,但也绝不会打算将其对于美国对中国所作应对的控制权让与法院和诉讼当事人。阿肯色州参议员Cotton近期提出了一项赢得广泛关注的立法提案,该法案允许总检察长干预和暂停任何该类诉讼,并允许国务院与外国政府谈判可予结案的诉讼解决方式,而且无论原告同意与否。尽管这一借鉴自《对恐怖主义资助者实行法律制裁法案》的新颖处理方式有可能解决行政机关的担忧,但其所授予的权利同样也可能引发程序正义和三权分立方面的问题,进而导致多年的诉讼。
     
      但是,原告律师不会等待国会做出的进一步反应。他们还是会持续起诉,主张适用现行《外国主权豁免法》的例外情形,而中国方面也需要就此进行抗辩。对于一个与美国以及世界经济存在千丝万缕经济联系的国家而言,应对这些诉讼,外交和政治的沟通自然必要,但如果被动放任诉讼的进行而无所作为,或导致缺席判决的结果。准备充分有理有据的有力抗辩,应作为中国的策略性选项。

     

    COVID-19 and Litigation Risk

    The COVID-19 pandemic is virtually certain to produce a wave of litigation against the People’s Republic of China, the Communist Party of China, and any number of political subdivisions and officials unlike anything China has previously experienced.  Seven class actions have been filed in the United States so far, and there will be more, all seeking enormous damages.  One state government has also filed suit, and many more are likely to follow.  Similar litigation is also probable in at least some other countries.  While the situation is largely unprecedented, experience teaches that the entities targeted in those cases should prepare to actively respond.

     

    Under current law, the risks posed by U.S. litigation against China’s government agencies and officials are, however, limited and manageable.  Foreign governments and their subdivisions, agencies, or instrumentalities are protected from claims in the U.S. by the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (“FSIA”), while individual officers acting in their official capacities are shielded from litigation by the common law principles of sovereign immunity.  

     

    The special service procedures required by the FSIA presents an initial hurdle for U.S. claimants that will keep these actions from even beginning for months.  It is likely that plaintiffs will ultimately need to invoke the assistance of the Department of State to effect service through diplomatic processes after exhausting other statutory processes.  It is not unusual for service issues in such cases to take well over a year to resolve.  

     

    More importantly, the complaints do not appear to state claims that are within the exceptions to immunity, as they are currently construed by the U.S. courts.  The complaints so far have typically alleged that China’s government censored doctors from speaking about COVID-19 in the early stages and otherwise misled and failed to warn the world community about the disease.  They also to varying degrees claim that a government lab may have been involved in the initial outbreak.  The plaintiffs’ claims have generally been framed in terms of tortious negligence, recklessness, or strict liability.  One complaint claims a violation of the Anti-Terrorism Act and invokes a terrorism exception to sovereign immunity, but does not plausibly explain how any of the defendants committed an act of terrorism.  Though the FSIA permits non-commercial tort claims, the most commonly applied exception for such claims limits them, under the “entire tort” rule, to conduct that occurs entirely within the U.S.  Claims based in part on the defendants’ alleged conduct in China do not fall within the exception.  The FSIA also bars tort claims against conduct that involves a “discretionary function or duty,” a concept that has been broadly construed to include all conduct that involves an element of judgment or policy and does not involve violation of a law or regulation. 

     

    There is certainly, however, enough complexity in FSIA case law to create significant risk that a creative judge will find a way around conventional constructions of the FSIA to enable these claims to be pursued.  As mentioned, one of the complaints invokes a terrorism exception to the FSIA, and the plaintiffs will likely seek other creative ways around limitations on sovereign immunity.  The risk of an outlier construction of the FSIA will multiply with the proliferation of lawsuits.  China can, however, limit this risk by seeking to consolidate these actions through the multi-district process into the court of a single federal judge, which will apply the law of a single federal appellate court. 

     

    The greater risk for Chinese defendants to these claims may lie in the reaction of Congress.  Some members of Congress have already stated their support for legislation to redefine the protection of sovereign immunity to assure that these lawsuits can go forward.

     

    The last time the United States suffered mass injury alleged to be linked to a foreign government, the Congress in fact did just that.  After the attack of September 11, 2001, prominent plaintiffs’ lawyers brought multiple actions in several jurisdictions on behalf of victims of the 9-11 attacks.  These actions alleged that the government of Saudi Arabia, entities owned by the government, and members of the Royal family who had held high government office, along with a large number of private Saudi companies, banks and individuals, should all be found liable for indirectly supporting al Qaeda primarily through their support for a number of Islamic charities. [1]

     

    Saudi government and government-owned entities were twice dismissed by the trial court on grounds that the claims against them were barred by sovereign immunity, but they were still litigating the issue in the Court of Appeals for the third time 14 years after the suit began, when Congress stepped in.  Speculation concerning the possible role of Saudi Arabia in supporting the 9-11 terrorists had remained popular in the media throughout that time.  As a result, plaintiffs and their attorneys were able to persuade Congress to pass legislation in 2016, the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (“JASTA”), which amended the FSIA to permit actions against foreign governments for damages caused by acts of international terrorism. This cut short the appeal from the Saudi government’s latest dismissal and allowed the firms representing the 9-11 victims to continue their lawsuits against it, which are still ongoing today.

     

    This law was passed despite the longstanding alliance between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, the opposition of the Obama Administration, and the absence of any evidence supporting the claims against Saudi Arabia.  The Obama Administration opposed the law on grounds that it would encourage other countries to make exceptions to sovereign immunity, which could cause endless problems for the U.S. because of its extensive international presence.  But in the months leading up to the 2016 elections, no one in Congress wanted to cast a vote for Saudi Arabia and against the 9-11 victims.  JASTA was, accordingly, passed by voice vote in the Senate and unanimously by the House of Representatives.  The bill was promptly vetoed by President Obama, but that veto was overridden by a large margin in the House and a 97-1 vote in the Senate.  It was the only veto overridden during President Obama’s eight years in office.

     

    China’s responsibility for the spread of COVID-19 has likewise become a matter of intense political and media interest in the U.S.  China’s theory that the infection first arose from consumption of animals at the Huanan Seafood Market was broadly accepted in the U.S. during the early weeks of the pandemic.  But a growing body of commentary citing U.S. government sources has promoted the view that the virus escaped from either the Wuhan Institute of Virology or the Wuhan Center for Disease Control, both of which are labs reportedly engaged in research of coronaviruses found in bats.  Published research from the Wuhan Institute of Virology has also given rise to the theory that the pandemic virus was actually engineered to enable it to infect human cells in experiments conducted in that lab.  Those allegations are strenuously contested by Chinese authorities and various supporting experts.  But while few doubt that the emergence of the virus was accidental, China is increasingly blamed for inadequate care in the management of these laboratories.

     

    Even greater attention has been focused on the intentional actions taken by China’s governmental authorities to control information about COVID-19 provided to other countries and the World Health Organization.  U.S. media claim that China, through a number of government agencies, suppressed and misrepresented facts relating to COVID-19.  Many have argued that this substantially delayed actions that could have been taken in countries throughout the world to prevent or contain the spread of the virus.  In response to these reports, two bills have been introduced in Congress, patterned on the model of JASTA, that would permit imposition of sanctions on Chinese government officials who concealed or distorted information relating to the COVID-19 crisis. [2]

     

    The response of the U.S. government to the pandemic may become the central concern of the 2020 elections.  Though the political parties will have opposing views on President Trump’s performance, neither party will likely be inclined to dispute the culpability of China’s government.  Just as Congress enacted JASTA with overwhelming support on the eve of a presidential election, in this political atmosphere, it will be difficult for Congress to vote against legislation, already proposed by some Republican senators, that assures a private right of action for victims of COVID-19 by stripping China of its sovereign immunity defense. [3]

     

    It can, of course, be persuasively argued that this is a very bad idea, since private lawsuits are not well-suited for dealing with a problem that is so broadly damaging and close to interests of state. Stripping sovereign immunity from tort claims in this context is also, of course, a far greater departure from international norms than the more limited exception for terrorism claims adopted in JASTA. Though President Trump’s Administration may be less concerned with these principles of international law, it certainly would not want to cede control of the U.S. response to China to courts and litigants.  The proposed legislation gaining the most attention, introduced by Senator Cotton of Arkansas, permits the Attorney General to intervene to stay any action and allows the State Department to negotiate a resolution of the action with the foreign government that can end the case, regardless of whether the plaintiffs agree.  While this novel structure, borrowed from JASTA, might answer Executive Branch concerns, its invocation might also present due process and separation of powers issues requiring years of litigation.

     

    Plaintiffs’ counsel will not, however, wait for Congress to act.  Complaints will continue to be filed, claiming exceptions to the existing FSIA, that China will need to defend.  Although it may be necessary for China to communicate via diplomatic and political channels on these litigations, ignoring the courts and letting these actions proceed without China’s participation may result in default judgments.  The preparation of a strong defense to these claims, well grounded in law and factual evidence, should be a strategic option for China.

    【作者简介】
    步荣根(Stephen J. Brogan),美国众达律师事务所的全球主管合伙人。
    【注释】
    [1] 众达曾在9-11相关诉讼中发挥主要作用。我们曾为当时备受媒体关注的多个私人被告提供法律代理服务,其中包括本·拉登的家族成员及其持有的知名建筑公司“沙特本拉登集团(Saudi Binladin Group),以及沙特皇室所御用的沙特国家商业银行的控制人Sheikh Khalid bin Mahfouz。我们当时曾就多方共同关注的重要动议进行法庭陈述和辩论,其中包括诉讼合并动议和撤销起诉动议,经过我们的努力,第一份动议成功促使法院下令将所有联邦法院诉讼合并转交纽约州的一名法官处理,第二份动议使我们的客户以及多名其他被告被撤销起诉,主要理由是原告未能提出具体事实证实被告是基地组织及其对美国开展的袭击活动的支持者。此后,我所又为迪拜伊斯兰银行提供法律代理服务,目前相关诉讼仍在进行中。
    [2] “2020年终结中国审查和掩盖医学信息法案”,参议员Ted Cruz;“李文亮全球公共健康问责法案”,参议员Josh Hawley、Tom Cotton,以及众议员John Curtis、Mike Gallagher、Ted Yoho、Jim Banks、Liz Cheney。
    [3] “新冠病毒受害人公义法案”, 参议员Josh  Hawley (内容未发布);“2020年 中国共产党为被感染美国民众担责法案”,参议员Tom Cotton,众议员Dan Crenshaw。

    [1] Jones Day took a leading role in the 9-11 litigation.  We represented some of the private defendants who received the most attention from the media, including members of the Bin Ladin family, their famous construction company the Saudi Binladin Group and Sheikh Khalid bin Mahfouz, who controlled the National Commercial Bank of Saudi Arabia used by the Royal Family.  We briefed and argued critical motions of common concern: first, the motion to consolidate the actions, which resulted in orders moving all federal court actions to a single judge in New York, and, second, a motion to dismiss, which resulted in the dismissal of our clients and many of the other defendants, primarily on grounds that plaintiffs had not been able to plead specific facts to support the claims that defendants were supporters of al Qaeda and its attack on the U.S.  We subsequently took on the representation of the Dubai Islamic Bank, which has remained in the still-ongoing litigation. 
     
    [2] “Ending Chinese Medical Censorship and Cover Ups Act of 2020.” Senator Ted Cruz; “Li Wenliang Global Public Health Accountability Act”. Senators Josh Hawley and Tom Cotton, along with Representatives John Curtis, Mike Gallagher, Ted Yoho, Jim Banks, and Liz Cheney.
     
    [3] “Justice for Victims of COVID-19 Act”. Senator Josh Hawley (text not released); “Holding the Chinese Communist Party Accountable for Infecting Americans Act of 2020.” Senator Tom Cotton and Representative Dan Crenshaw. 

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