Lawsuits brought by a number of people who suffered similar harm or losses are “class action” and “mass tort” litigation. And though they do share similarities, they are different in how they go about compensating the many that have been harmed by a single negligent defendant – usually a company. Below is an explanation of both types of civil cases, and also how some mass torts become an MDL – multi-district litigation.
Class Actions – Where One Injured Plaintiff Essentially Speaks for All
A “class action” lawsuit is one in which a group of people with the same or similar injuries caused by the same product or action sues the defendant as a group. Class action lawsuits can be effective remedies in these types of litigation:
- Defective products (including drugs)
- Motor vehicles and other consumer products
- Consumer fraud
- Corporate misconduct
- Securities fraud
- Illegal employment practices.
Usually, the injuries in a class action fall short of being life-threatening The value of the individual claims of the class do add up to where the “class of victims” (and their attorneys) consolidate all their evidence, witnesses, and most other aspects of their cases. There is no limit to the size a class of plaintiffs can be.
Class action lawsuits may involve a group of employees suing for discrimination, a large number of patients who were prescribed a drug with injurious side effects, a neighborhood of residents who suffered from a toxic chemical spill, or investors who suffered fraud from a sale of stocks or securities. The group files a lawsuit in the name of a single representative plaintiff, often called the “named” or “lead” plaintiff.
Communicating with Large Groups of Named and Potential Plaintiffs
Every person involved in the class action must receive notice that the action has started; as well as notice of all arguments and rulings that affect their class action. It can be very difficult to give everyone personal notice. In addition, the court will order that the class representative, through his or her attorneys, make reasonable attempts to notify any unknown class members by general media, such as an advertisement in a magazine or newspaper and, in the past few years, via email and social media. The court usually dictates the wording to be used in these types of notices.
Other similarly harmed people have the opportunity to join in the action – called “opting in” – or to drop their participation as it moves forward – called “opting out.”
Benefits of Class Actions
Class action lawsuits make the process more efficient by bringing together and disposing of numerous claims simultaneously. The presiding judge decides the basic question of who wins with regard to the entire group. If the defendant wins, the class lawsuit is dismissed and those in the group cannot file new or individual lawsuits over the same issue against the same defendant. If the class of plaintiffs wins, the defendant is liable for damages, and the amount of recovery is distributed among the plaintiffs.
Because class action lawsuits combine smaller individual claims, the often high cost of litigation is lowered and fewer individual lawsuits flood already crowded court dockets. Another benefit of the class action is that, when the class wins the lawsuit, each plaintiff receives some payment, even if it might not fully compensate them. Without a class action, each plaintiff would be on their own and payment – if successful – would be on a first-come, first-served basis.
Mass Torts – Everyone’s Case is Heard Individually
Mass torts resemble class actions because they, too, have many plaintiffs against one defendant. They can be heard in state or federal court. But unlike a class action, the amount of money the defendants are being sued for can dwarf the damage amounts that class action defendants must pay. Other differences include:
- Each plaintiff’s individual claim is maintained.
- Every single plaintiff can receive his or her own separate trial (in a class action, the many plaintiffs typically are not considered individually and there is only one trial).
Mass torts are most appropriate in product liability cases, large antitrust claims against businesses, and very large-scale man-made disasters such as plant explosions, plane crashes, or large public fires (e.g. apartment buildings or shopping malls). Lately, most mass torts have arisen from defective product (and defective drug) lawsuits. Total damage amounts from a single mass tort defendant can easily dwarf those paid-out in a class action.
How Many Similar Lawsuits Morph into a Mass Tort
When a large group of plaintiffs decide to sue a common defendant in a single civil lawsuit, their lawyer(s) must ask the court for permission to file a mass tort action. The court considers many factors when determining whether or not to grant the plaintiffs’ request:
- Whether a large number of plaintiffs are involved
- How near or far all plaintiffs are located from each other
- The similarity of the injuries suffered by the various plaintiffs
- Whether there is a common cause associated with the claims made by the plaintiffs, such as a single product, similar means of injury, or disaster.
If the court rules for the plaintiffs, the case is quickly assigned to a judge, who will order a notice of the lawsuit be published so that others who have been harmed by the same product can join the lawsuit if they wish to. Participating law firms may also get the word out through newspapers, radio/TV advertising, email, and their websites and social media presence.
Once both sides are ready for trial, the opposing attorneys – under the supervision of the judge – choose a few cases for trial, known as “bellwether (or representative) cases.” The results of these early trials (or sometimes how things go before verdict) can significantly impact all subsequent cases within the entire mass tort.
While the results of these trials are not binding on anyone other than the parties to each specific trial, the results do impact all the mass tort’s cases because some plaintiff evidence can be shared with others, subject to judicial approval. An example is the July 2017, Daiichi Sankyo settlement where it agreed to pay up to $300 million for all its U.S. mass tort cases regarding Benicar blood pressure medication before the bellwether cases were even concluded.
One plaintiff advantage in mass tort litigation allows investigation and preparation that goes into a mass tort case to be transferred from one client to another. This significantly increases case preparation efficiency. Another comes from the fact that a similarly harmed large group of plaintiffs amplifies the proof of their claims, which can inspire defendants to settle.
Federal Multi-District Litigation
Multi-district Litigation (MDL) is a feature of mass torts that are heard in federal courts. They streamline pretrial proceedings and avoid the duplication of discovery by joining similar cases into one action for the sake of efficiency and standardization. A single federal judge presides over all of the pretrial motions, discovery proceedings, settlement conferences, and any other activity pertaining to all trials. Once all procedural issues have been resolved, this “blueprint” governs all trials within the mass tort. The Daiichi Sankyo mass tort was an MDL.
The United States Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation decides when multiple lawsuits should be combined to form an MDL. The panel is composed of seven members, who are appointed by the chief justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. Once the panel is in agreement that an MDL should be created, they then select an appropriate judicial district to handle the litigation.
It’s possible your injury case could be part of an existing (or yet-to-be-filed) class action or mass tort. The experienced attorneys with Terry Bryant Accident & Injury Law can explain these complicated types of cases once you fill out our online contact form or give us call: toll-free at (800) 444-5000.