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Multidistrict litigation (MDL) is a special federal legal procedure designed to speed up the process of handling complex cases, such as air disaster litigation or complex product liability suits, which are pending in different districts.
These complex cases usually involve hundreds or thousands of individually filed cases throughout the United States that have similar issues. Thus, the cases are grouped together before a single judge so that the attorneys on both sides can work more efficiently together.
The U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation, a group of federal judges appointed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, decides whether cases should be consolidated as an MDL and to which court these cases should be transferred for pretrial proceedings.
The goal of an MDL is to:
- Avoid duplicative discovery
- Prevent inconsistent pretrial rulings, and
- Conserve the resources of the parties, their counsel and the judiciary.
Considerations determining which court presides over an MDL include matters such as the following:
- The location of witnesses
- The jurisdiction in which most cases are pending
- The pending caseload of a court
Difference between multidistrict litigation and class action
MDLs are often confused with class action lawsuits, but they are not the same. In a class action, many plaintiffs are joined together into a single action because they have similar claims. In contrast, in an MDL, each plaintiff’s case remains individual, although they’re grouped together for pretrial proceedings due to common factual issues.
What types of cases typically become multidistrict litigations?
Several types of cases can become multidistrict litigations, including:
- Product liability. When a defective product, such as pharmaceutical drugs, medical devices or consumer goods, causes injuries or damages to multiple individuals, the resulting lawsuits can be consolidated into an MDL.
- Mass torts. Mass torts involve a large number of plaintiffs who have suffered harm due to a common cause, such as exposure to hazardous substances, environmental pollution or a catastrophic event like a plane crash or train derailment.
- Consumer class actions. When numerous consumers file lawsuits against a company for deceptive marketing practices, false advertising or defective products, these cases can be centralized into an MDL to facilitate coordination and efficiency in resolving the claims.
- Intellectual property disputes. Complex cases involving patent infringement, copyright violations or trade secret misappropriation can be consolidated into an MDL to manage overlapping issues and promote consistent rulings.
- Environmental contamination. Cases related to widespread environmental contamination, such as oil spills, groundwater pollution or toxic waste disposal, can result in an MDL due to the numerous lawsuits filed by affected individuals or communities.
Examples of multidistrict litigations
Dozens of MDLs are pending at any given time. Many are recognizable due to the publicity they receive. Here are a few examples:
- 3M Combat Arms earplug products liability litigation. This MDL involves allegations that 3M knowingly sold defective earplugs to the military, resulting in hearing damage for many service members.
- Roundup products liability litigation. In this case, plaintiffs allege that Monsanto’s Roundup weed killer causes cancer and that the company failed to warn consumers about this risk.
- Talcum powder products liability litigation. This MDL involves allegations that Johnson & Johnson’s talcum powder products, including its baby powder, cause ovarian cancer and mesothelioma.
- Allergan BIOCELL textured breast implant products liability litigation. This MDL involves allegations that certain types of Allergan breast implants increase the risk of a rare type of lymphoma.
- Bair Hugger forced-air warming devices products liability litigation. Plaintiffs in this MDL allege that the Bair Hugger warming blanket, used in surgeries, can increase the risk of deep joint infections.
Largest multidistrict litigations
Typically, MDLs comprise a group that handles dozens to hundreds of cases. But one group stands out from the rest – MDL No. 875, which holds the record for being the most extensive and longest.
Established in 1991 by the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation (JPML), MDL No. 875, operating out of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, oversaw all federal court cases related to personal injuries and wrongful deaths caused by asbestos exposure until June of 2019. In those 28 years, MDL No. 875 resolved 186,695 cases.
While MDL No. 875’s numbers were historic, its litigation volume was soon eclipsed by the 3M Combat Arms Earplugs MDL, MDL No. 2885, which was formed in the Southern District of Florida in 2019 just as the asbestos litigation was closing. To date, over 300,000 Combat Arms Earplugs cases have been filed and over 250,000 remain pending.
What is Chappell, Chappell & Newman’s experience in multidistrict litigation?
The attorneys at Chappell, Chappell & Newman have been actively involved in all of the MDLs listed above, as well as a number of others. When choosing a law firm to assist you with an MDL case, it’s important to ensure that the firm is experienced in this sort of litigation, as it involves specialized rules with which many attorneys are not familiar.
I have a case involved in Multidistrict Litigation. Is it possible that my case will go to trial?
It is possible that a case in multidistrict litigation could go to trial, but the vast majority of cases in MDLs are settled or resolved before they reach that stage.
In the MDL process, a small group of cases are typically selected as bellwether trials. These cases are prepared for trial and then tried to verdict. The outcomes of these trials are not binding on the other cases, but they give all parties involved an idea of how future trials might play out, including potential jury reactions and interpretations of the law.
The outcome of bellwether trials may influence the potential for the settlement of the larger body of cases involved in the MDL. As a result, much effort and expense is invested in bellwether trials by all sides to the MDL litigation.
If a global settlement isn’t reached following the bellwether trials, the remaining cases can be sent back, or “remanded,” to their original courts for individual trials. It’s also possible that some cases may be dismissed during the MDL process if the judge determines that they don’t have sufficient legal merit.
On occasion, entire MDLs may be dismissed if the judge determines that a particular legal insufficiency applies to each case. For example, if the judge decides that the scientific link between a defective product and the alleged injury is too weak to reach a jury, he may order all cases relying on that scientific link to be dismissed.
While your case could technically go to trial, the reality is that it’s statistically unlikely due to the way the MDL process is designed.
The goal is to handle common pretrial proceedings efficiently and then to use the bellwether trials to guide settlement negotiations for the remaining cases. Of course, the specifics can vary significantly from one MDL to another, and the strategy may be influenced by the nature of the claims, the number of cases, and the attitudes of the parties and the court.
What is a bellwether trial?
In multidistrict litigation, the bellwether trial process is a method used to manage a large number of individual claims that have common factual issues. The term “bellwether” comes from the practice of shepherds tying a bell around the leading sheep of a herd. In the MDL context, bellwether trials serve as a test or an indicator for a larger group of cases.
The selection of cases for bellwether trials is a crucial aspect of the process. The cases should be representative of the overall cases in the MDL, and both plaintiffs and defendants have an opportunity to suggest cases for inclusion. The final decision on which cases will proceed to bellwether trials is made by the presiding judge.
What happens if my case is remanded from the MDL?
If your MDL case does not settle and is not dismissed, it will be remanded from the court presiding over the multidistrict litigation. This means that the case is sent back to the original court, where it was filed for further proceedings.
For example, if your case was originally filed in the District of South Carolina before being included in the MDL, it will be returned to South Carolina for continuing development.
Here is what generally happens when a case is remanded:
- Trial preparation. The case will continue to be prepared for trial in the original court. This can involve further discovery, pretrial motions and other procedural steps.
- Trial. The case can go to trial in the original court, where it will be heard by a judge or jury. The trial will focus on the individual details of your case.
- Settlement negotiations. Even after a case is remanded, settlement negotiations can continue. Sometimes, the prospect of an impending trial can provide motivation for the parties to reach a settlement.
- Potential appeal. Depending on the outcome of the trial, either party may decide to appeal to a higher court.
Remember, every legal case is unique, and the exact process can vary based on numerous factors, including the specifics of your case and the strategies of the involved parties.
Contact the experienced multidistrict litigation attorneys at Chappell, Chappel & Newman
At Chappell, Chappell & Newman, our South Carolina attorneys have extensive experience handling a wide range of MDL cases throughout South Carolina, and we’re committed to protecting the rights of injured people so they can obtain the justice and compensation they deserve. Contact us today for a free consultation of your case.