Clients frequently ask us to explain the difference between the terms mass tort, class action, and multidistrict litigation. The question is a very good one.
A mass tort is a type of civil action involving numerous plaintiffs with similar claims against one or a few defendants in state or federal court. Mass torts most often are filed by individuals who have suffered physical or financial injury because of the negligence or misconduct of a corporation.
Mass torts generally occur when a company causes injury or damage to numerous consumers by an identical act of harm. For example, a company might produce a prescription drug, a medical device, or a defective product that causes physical injuries or economic harm to thousands of individuals all over the United States.
People often think that cases involving pharmaceutical injuries, defective products, or medical devices are always handled as class actions, when in fact they are more often litigated as a mass tort of thousands of individual cases joined together into a “multidistrict litigation” (an MDL).
What is Multidistrict Litigation
A multidistrict litigation (MDL) is a type of legal proceeding that can occur after numerous cases are filed in federal court by individuals who have sustained injuries or damages by a company’s conduct.
The cases are joined before one federal judge for the purpose of the discovery and important legal rulings. The judge overseeing the litigation appoints a select group of attorneys to pursue the discovery on behalf of all individuals injured. This group of attorneys is referred to as the “plaintiffs’ steering committee” (the PSC).
The MDL usually takes many years to resolve, and the law firms appointed by the judge routinely expend many millions of dollars and more than 100,000 hours of time trying to prove the case for the plaintiffs.
Many times, the law firms handling the MDL will be able to work out a potential settlement for all individuals who were injured or damaged by the company, especially after there have been a few jury trials concluded to help both sides determine the reasonable value of the cases. These settlements may even include individuals the law firms do not represent.
No individual, however, is required to participate in the settlement. Instead, a settlement is structured such that each individual's case facts are evaluated on its own merits, including exposure, causation, injuries and damages. Each individual is able to make his/her own decision after hearing the terms of the proposed settlement.
If the law firms participating in the MDL cannot work out a group settlement as part of the MDL, then eventually all of the plaintiffs will need to have their individual cases tried before a jury or settled. This will be the responsibility of the law firm the individual hired to represent him/her. The benefit of the MDL, however, is that each law firm and client will be able to use the evidence that was gathered during the MDL process, although additional evidence will still be required to be presented for each individual case.
What is a Class Action
If the mass tort is not handled as part of an MDL, then it likely will be handled as a class action. A class action is a type of lawsuit where a few individuals, known as class representatives, represent the interest of many individuals, even if the other individuals don't have a lawyer and are not named in the litigation. Clients must consent before being identified in a lawsuit as a class representative, as they will have special responsibilities involving the litigation.
The court and jury rulings made in the class action impact and bind all persons who are considered a member of the class action, most of whom do not even know they are involved in the class action lawsuit. Thus, if a class action is filed and approved by the court, then individuals who were injured by a company could end up receiving very little or no money, even though their cases were never considered by a jury or the company at fault.
Most often individuals have the opportunity to choose to be part of the class action or not. However, this decision has to be made very early in the process before the individual knows whether the class action will be successful or not, and well before the individual knows how much compensation he/she might recover.
Will Levin Papantonio Clients be Part of an MDL or a Class Action
Our law firm rarely has our clients participate in class actions. Instead, we prefer the MDL model. We generally are very actively involved in the MDL proceedings, most often we hold a senior position in the prosecution of the case.
We want to be actively involved in the national litigation because it helps to guarantee that the cases will be prosecuted in the best manner possible, and that our clients receive top representation. Yet, our clients pay our law firm no more in fees or costs even though we are helping to lead the national litigation.
Additionally, each of our clients in an MDL always has the right to settle or not settle his/her individual case based on his/her specific facts and circumstances. Our attorneys who have firsthand knowledge about the mass tort litigation will be in the best position to recommend to each individual client whether he/she should accept or not accept a particular settlement.