People often think that cases involving pharmaceutical injuries, medical devices, and defective products 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).
An MDL mass tort is a type of civil action involving numerous plaintiffs with similar claims against one or a few defendants in federal court. The cases are joined before one judge for the purpose of the discovery, important legal rulings, and the trial of the first few cases.
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 has been a few jury trials concluded to help both sides determine the reasonable value of the cases.
In a mass tort MDL case, no individual 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 mass tort 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.
If a 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.
The court and jury rulings made in the class action (including settlements) 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. 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.