Multidistrict Litigation for Resolving Products Liability Lawsuits
When many plaintiffs bring separate but parallel civil cases in federal courts, the cases may be consolidated under the multidistrict litigation system. Consolidation can make the process more efficient and cost-effective when complex claims across different districts share legal theories and factual issues. It also can avoid a situation in which different courts reach different decisions in legally identical cases, resulting in confusion and appeals. Many multidistrict litigation proceedings arise from allegedly dangerous drugs or medical devices, since these products affect people similarly across the country. Determining liability in each case involves the same question of whether the item is defective in its manufacturing, design, or marketing.
Consolidating Cases into Multidistrict Litigation
The Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court appoints seven judges to the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation. This panel will determine whether to consolidate a certain group of cases across multiple federal districts. It has the authority to transfer each of the cases to a single federal district court. If a plaintiff files their claim after consolidation, their case also can be transferred into the MDL.
A case in MDL will be sent back to the original court for trial if it is not resolved during the pre-trial and discovery phase.
To be consolidated, cases in different districts must have at least one common question of fact. A single judge will handle the discovery phase of the litigation, which involves gathering evidence relevant to the case. Discovery might include taking depositions and requesting documents that are within the other party’s control. The same judge will rule on any pre-trial motions filed by the parties. These might include a motion for summary judgment, which is a way for a defendant to get a case dismissed before trial. A motion for summary judgment allows a judge to find in favor of a party if there are no disputed factual issues, and the law is unambiguously on their side. Another type of pre-trial motion might affect the evidence that can be admitted at trial.
The MDL judge can oversee a settlement conference and determine whether to approve any settlement that the parties reach. If one or more cases do not get resolved before trial, they must be returned to the court in which they were filed so that a trial can proceed.
Impact of Consolidation
The MDL process was intended to aid judicial economy rather than benefiting either plaintiffs or defendants. However, it offers certain advantages and disadvantages to each side. For a plaintiff, consolidation can give them better value for their money because the attorneys for the various plaintiffs can work together, sharing their resources. Additional plaintiffs may be more likely to join the litigation because media coverage may alert them to its existence.
For a defendant, going through the MDL process helps cut costs and reduce the time spent complying with discovery requests. It also condenses the number of depositions by key representatives of the defendant. While they might not intentionally try to hide the truth, they might provide different answers in different depositions, which might undermine their credibility.
In some cases, an MDL judge will choose a group of plaintiffs for a bellwether trial to see how a jury will react to common facts and legal issues. The outcome of a bellwether trial may help other MDL parties assess whether to continue to trial or settle.
Other Examples of Multidistrict Litigation
In addition to cases based on defective drugs and medical devices, many securities fraud cases affecting consumers across the country go through the MDL process. Employment disputes involving national corporations may be handled in this way as well. Intellectual property cases are another example. Sometimes lawsuits arising from the same plane crash may be consolidated, especially if the crash resulted from a defective aircraft or component.