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Mass Torts, Multidistrict Litigation (MDLs) & Class Actions

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.


What is a Mass Tort?

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 individuals through 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.

Mass torts generally are filed as part of a “multidistrict litigation” (an MDL) or as a class action.


What is Multidistrict Litigation (an MDL)?

A multidistrict litigation (MDL) is a type of legal proceeding that can occur after multiple lawsuits are filed in federal court by individuals who have sustained similar injuries or harm by a company’s conduct.

The lawsuits are joined before one federal judge for the purpose of 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 50,000 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 mass tort settlement for all individuals who were injured or damaged by the company, especially after there have been a few bellwether jury trials to help both sides determine the reasonable value of the cases.

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 settlement as part of the MDL, then eventually all of the plaintiffs will need to have their individual cases tried before a jury or individually settled. This will be the responsibility of the law firm the individual hired to represent him/her.

Even if the MDL does not settle, the benefit of the MDL is that each law firm and client will be able to use the evidence that was gathered during the MDL process.


What is 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 individuals that 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 individuals know whether the class action will be successful or not, and well before the individuals know how much compensation they might recover.


Will Levin Papantonio Clients be Part of an MDL or a Class Action

The vast majority of the time our clients in a mass tort case become part of an MDL, not a class action. We generally are actively involved in the MDL proceedings, holding a senior position in the prosecution of the case.

We are actively involved in the national litigation because it helps guarantee that the cases are prosecuted in the best manner possible and that our clients receive top representation. Our clients, however, pay our law firm no more in fees or costs even when 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 with knowledge of the litigation will be in the best position to recommend to each individual client whether he/she should accept or not accept a particular settlement.

There are times when we believe a class action is the best means of achieving maximum recovery on behalf of the thousands of persons harmed. When we pursue a class action, we generally will contract with just a few clients who best represent the type of harm and damages that have been experienced by all others harmed. We then file the appropriate legal papers to achieve class action certification and then conduct the extensive discovery to try to prove the case before a judge and jury.