How Does Multidistrict Litigation Work in a Mass Tort Case?

Mass tort cases often end up consolidated into multi-district litigation (MDL), a process that centralizes pre-trial steps and encourages settlement.

By , J.D. · Villanova University School of Law

In the world of personal injury lawsuits, "mass tort" cases typically involve the negligence or wrongdoing of one or a few defendants, combined with harm suffered by a large number of plaintiffs. Mass tort cases include claims over injuries and illnesses caused by defective and dangerous consumer products, pharmaceuticals, and catastrophic events like airliner crashes.

Multiple mass tort claims might be grouped together in a class action, but this is often not the best procedural fit unless every claimant suffered substantially similar harm as a result of the defendant's wrongdoing—which is not usually the case with injuries or illnesses. So, mass tort claims are most often consolidated via multidistrict litigation, or MDL. This allows for greater efficiency in pre-trial matters, and encourages settlement through the use of "bellwether" trials. In this article, we'll explain how mass tort MDLs work in the context of mass tort cases.

What Is an MDL?

Unlike a class action lawsuit, in an MDL each plaintiff files his or her own lawsuit. The federal courts will transfer many factually similar cases into a single federal district, so that only one judge handles it. This will allow for more efficient handling of pretrial matters. And in many instances, if there is an existing MDL, the defendant (the company being sued, for example) might try to get a state court lawsuit moved ("remanded") to the MDL when it concerns the same subject matter.

Without an MDL, the defendant would need to individually comply with each plaintiff's discovery request. Imagine the cost and hassle if 3,000 mass tort plaintiffs want the defendant to produce the same document during discovery. But with an MDL, the defendant could produce that document once, and then each plaintiff in the MDL would get a copy. This can drastically improve the efficiency of mass tort litigation.

MDLs are also good for settling cases. The MDL judge will push each side to work toward a global settlement. But most importantly, the parties and judge will choose a few cases to go to trial to serve as a kind of legal test run. These so-called "bellwether" trials give each side an idea of what they can expect when litigating their own case.

How Does an MDL Work In Mass Tort Cases?

Before a mass tort MDL exists, there will be individually filed personal injury lawsuits spread out over various federal district courts. These can be very similar cases that don't qualify for class action status.

For example, let's say a pharmaceutical company released a drug that caused unexpected injury to patients. The patients want to sue the company, but each patient has a slightly different experience in terms of the nature and severity of their injuries. These claims probably won't qualify for a class action, but MDL might be appropriate.

In that situation, the United States Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation will take a look at these similar cases and decide if MDL is appropriate. If it is, then the cases get sent to a single federal district court and assigned to an individual judge. (For example, the largest MDL in history involves over 250,000 3M Earplug lawsuits.)

After the MDL is created, if there is a new plaintiff with similar allegations, the new plaintiff's case will often get sent to the MDL.

Now, pre-trial motions and discovery can take place. There will also be settlement conferences and other meetings in which the parties sort out procedural issues, like scheduling. At this time the judge might end up dismissing a few cases for various reasons.

Eventually, the judge and the parties will schedule several bellwether trials. These are individual lawsuits that will go to trial with the results serving as a "bellwether" for everyone else involved in the MDL—meaning an indicator of what they can expect in their respective lawsuits.

When choosing bellwether trials, the judge and parties will try to find cases that represent the spectrum of legal issues that exist in the MDL. For instance, let's say we have an MDL involving an allegedly defective medical device. Some plaintiffs argue there was a manufacturing defect. Other plaintiffs believe the product had a design flaw. The parties would likely have at least one bellwether trial for each of these legal theories.

After each bellwether trial, each side will have a better idea of what legal arguments work and which don't. It will also give the parties a better sense of what range of damages awards are possible.

If there is a bellwether trial trend in one direction, this can dramatically affect the chance of settlement. Trends that show plaintiffs having success mean they are more likely to get a large settlement offer from the defendant. Trends that show juries siding with the defendant make it more likely any settlement amount will be smaller than what plaintiffs originally hoped for.

While settlements tend to be more likely after at least one bellwether trial concludes, the parties can settle their cases at any time during the MDL.

The judge will try to have the parties reach a global settlement that can apply to all of the MDL cases. Even if the parties reach a global settlement, each plaintiff reserves the right to reject the settlement offer and have its own trial.

If no settlement takes place during the MDL, each case will return to its original federal district and continue to trial. Sometimes cases will settle after leaving the MDL.

If You Think You Might Have a Mass Tort Case

If you've suffered the type of harm that might give rise to a mass tort claim, it might be time to discuss your situation (and your options in terms of an existing MDL) with a lawyer. Learn more about finding the right lawyer for your injury case and how mass tort lawyers typically get paid.

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