Multidistrict Litigation

Multidistrict litigation (MDL) is a legal process designed to help a backlog of complex federal cases progress through the legal system more efficiently. MDLs often involve product liability cases in which many people were harmed by a defective product in similar ways but to different extents.

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What Is Multidistrict Litigation?

In multidistrict litigation, complex cases involving multiple people with similar claims are combined to streamline the legal process for all parties involved.

Did you know?

MDLs can involve a few individual cases or several hundred thousand cases.

MDLs are common in mass torts, which are cases involving injuries caused by dangerous products like faulty medical devices or recalled drugs.

Goals of Multidistrict Litigation

The main goal of an MDL is to save the federal courts both time and money when handling complex litigation involving multiple plaintiffs. MDLs conserve judicial resources and result in more timely settlements.

One of the main ways that MDLs allow judicial resources to be conserved is by consolidating the process of discovery and other pretrial proceedings for cases with common issues.

During discovery, both sides exchange information about the evidence, experts, and witnesses they plan to present at trial.

Without the consolidation of discovery that MDLs provide, this process would have to be conducted with each individual case — which, in lawsuits with thousands of plaintiffs, could take decades.

Benefits of Multidistrict Litigation

There are many benefits to filing a lawsuit as an MDL as opposed to filing a lawsuit on your own.

For example, this type of litigation allows attorneys to pool their resources and work together, which can make for stronger cases.

5 benefits of MDLs are:

  1. Consistent court rulings: Centralizing cases under one MDL judge fosters consistency in court rulings across different lawsuits, ensuring that all parties receive equal treatment and due process.
  2. Convenience for parties and witnesses: Consolidating cases in one location makes it easier for parties, witnesses, and their attorneys to participate in the legal process, reducing the need for extensive travel and scheduling conflicts.
  3. Cost-effective litigation: An MDL reduces the financial burden on parties involved in the litigation by eliminating duplication of witness depositions and requests for discovery.
  4. Effective discovery coordination: The MDL judge can appoint lead counsel to coordinate discovery, ensuring that all parties have access to necessary information and streamlining the overall process.
  5. Faster resolution of cases: An MDL can expedite the resolution of complex cases by consolidating the pretrial process and encouraging parties to reach a settlement.

Multidistrict Litigation vs Class Action Lawsuits

Both MDLs and class action lawsuits are mechanisms for people to get compensation and make themselves whole following an injury. However, there are some key differences between these two types of lawsuits.

A class action lawsuit is a single lawsuit filed by a group of people who have suffered similar harm from the same defendant.

An MDL involves multiple lawsuits filed by different individuals against the same defendant that are consolidated for discovery and other pretrial proceedings. They are usually sent back to the courts that they came from for trial.

The injuries in an MDL are usually too different to qualify for a class action lawsuit. All members of a class action typically receive the same settlement amount, which has been divided evenly between them. Conversely, parties in an MDL receive a portion of settlement money based on the extent and nature of their individual injuries.

Types of Multidistrict Litigation

MDLs are most appropriate for cases in which there is a single defendant in a position to be sued by a large number of people, like in product liability cases.

The people filing the lawsuits against these companies were all injured by the same product or event, but the extent and severity of their injuries vary.

Common types of MDL cases include:

Multidistrict Litigation Rules and Process

The multidistrict litigation process can be broken down into the following steps.

1. Lawyers Request Multidistrict Litigation

If it appears that a case has the potential to be part of an MDL, a lawyer can place a request with the United States Judicial Panel of Multidistrict Litigation (JPML). The JPML is made up of seven circuit and district judges who are designated by the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

2. JPML Combines Lawsuits

The JPML can also decide on its own whether to combine cases into an MDL without an official request from a lawyer. Certain factors, or common questions of fact, must be present for the JPML to find eligibility for an MDL.

These factors include:

  • All of the cases are civil actions that share common facts, making consolidation appropriate.
  • Transferring the cases to an MDL will provide convenience to all parties.
  • Transferring the cases to an MDL will promote timeliness and cost-effectiveness.

3. JPML Transfers MDL to a Federal District Court

Once the JPML has decided that a group of cases can be appropriately consolidated into an MDL, it transfers them to a single federal district court. Because cases for an MDL typically come from different jurisdictions, they are usually placed in the federal district court in which the defendant for the case is located.

In the event that similar cases arise after the formation of the MDL, these cases can be transferred to the MDL as tag-along cases.

4. MDL Court Appoints a Plaintiff’s Steering Committee

Depending on the size of the MDL, there can be hundreds of separate lawyers and law firms involved from many different districts. This is why the MDL court appoints a Plaintiff’s Steering Committee (PSC) that can speak to the court on behalf of all the plaintiffs.

This group of lawyers, headed by a Lead Counsel, will meet regularly and prepare the plaintiffs’ strategy throughout the entire legal process.

5. Defendants Form a Defendant Steering Committee

Defendants typically form their own steering committees, although this committee can also be appointed by the MDL court in certain instances. In order to prepare for court, the Defendant Steering Committee (DSC) gathers any and all relevant information and evidence and prepares pretrial motions for the MDL judge to hear.

6. MDL Court Hears Bellwether Cases

In bellwether trials, several of the cases in the MDL are chosen to serve as representative or test cases for the larger group of cases. These cases go through the discovery process and are tried before a judge or jury.

How bellwether trials play out provide valuable information as to whether the remaining cases in the MDL should be settled and for what amounts.

7. MDL Court Decides on Settlement Amounts

As the MDL progresses through the legal system, many of the individual cases will be settled along the way with the help of the MDL court.

In fact, if enough cases reach a global settlement before going to trial, the MDL judge may dissolve the MDL entirely. In these instances, the remaining cases will return to the original courts where they were filed.

Examples of Multidistrict Litigation Settlements

Since MDLs were first created in the 1960s, thousands of civil cases have been settled through this process.

Here are some notable MDL cases that are still active:

  • 3M Combat Arms Earplug Products Liability Litigation, MDL No. 2885: This is currently the largest pending MDL in the United States. It had over 320,000 cases at one point in time. A recent bellwether trial for this MDL in Florida awarded $13 million for an Army sergeant who experienced hearing loss from use of this product.
  • Johnson & Johnson Talcum Powder Litigation, MDL No. 2738: Tens of thousands of people have sued Johnson & Johnson, alleging the company used asbestos-tainted talc in its baby powder and other products that caused them to develop cancer. In April 2023, the company offered $8.9 billion to settle the lawsuits.
  • Paraquat Products Liability Litigation, MDL 3004: These lawsuits, which claim that the herbicide Paraquat causes Parkinson’s disease, have been consolidated in a federal court in Illinois.
  • Roundup Products Liability Litigation, MDL No. 2741: These cases allege that the weedkiller Roundup® caused users to develop non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma or soft tissue cancers. More than 4,000 claims are part of an MDL in California.
  • Social Media Adolescent Addiction/Personal Injury Products Liability Litigation, MDL 3047: In October 2022, the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation centralized all social media addiction lawsuits into an MDL and assigned them to the Northern District of California. The lawsuits allege that social media platforms apply algorithms that both promote addiction and prey on vulnerable users.
  • Tylenol (Acetaminophen) Marketing, Sales Practices and Products Liability Litigation, MDL No. 2436: These lawsuits allege that the use of Tylenol® in pregnant women can cause autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children and that the drugmakers failed to warn of these dangers.
  • Zofran Products Liability Litigation, MDL No. 2657: Zofran is an anti-nausea drug that has been shown to cause birth defects in children when taken during pregnancy. Lawsuits were filed against drug maker GlaxoSmithKline, who failed to warn of its potential effects.

Are There Drawbacks to Multidistrict Litigation?

While the MDL process comes with many benefits, there are also some disadvantages that should be considered.

Potential drawbacks of MDLs include:

  • Delay in resolution: While MDLs can lead to a faster resolution in some cases, they can also cause delays for plaintiffs whose cases may have otherwise been resolved quickly through individual litigation.
  • Difficulty in finding counsel: Due to the complexity and resource-intensive nature of MDLs, some plaintiffs may struggle to find experienced counsel willing to take on their case.
  • Limited individualized attention: Plaintiffs in MDLs may not receive the same level of individualized attention as they would in a standalone lawsuit, which could impact their ability to fully present their case.
  • Loss of autonomy: In multidistrict litigation, individual plaintiffs and their attorneys may lose control over key decisions, as they are often combined with other cases to streamline the process.
  • Unequal representation: Plaintiffs may not receive equal representation in MDLs, as some law firms may have more influence or resources than others, potentially impacting the outcome of their case.

Learn More About Multidistrict Litigation

For more information about multidistrict litigation, contact an attorney experienced in MDLs. There are lawyers and law firms across the country that handle this type of litigation.

An attorney can tell you whether you have a case and if it would be in your best interest to join an MDL.

The MDL process can seem confusing or complex at times, but with the right personal injury lawyer on your side, it can allow you to seek justice and compensation in an expedited and cost-effective manner.

Multidistrict Litigation FAQs

What is multidistrict litigation?

Multidistrict litigation, known as an MDL, is a type of civil procedure used to combine multiple lawsuits pending against the same defendant for similar damages or injuries. MDLs are actually fairly common in the United States, with an estimated 15% of all civil lawsuits belonging to an MDL.

What is the purpose of multidistrict litigation?

MDLs were created to make the legal process quicker and more efficient by taking a large number of cases with similar characteristics and combining them. Without MDLs, many of these cases would remain pending for years as claimants continue to suffer from their injuries without financial compensation.

What is the difference between a class action and an MDL?

Class action lawsuits and MDLs are similar in that they both combine large groups of people who are essentially filing the same lawsuit against the same defendant.

However in MDLs, cases are combined for the pretrial portion of litigation and then transferred back to the court where they were filed. With a class action lawsuit, cases remain combined throughout the entire legal process.

Plaintiffs in an MDL share the same complaint but the extent of their injuries can vary significantly, which is why they are unable to move forward as a class action.

How long do MDL cases take to settle?

While it will always depend on various factors in each individual case, MDLs can take years to reach a settlement. Although this may seem like a long time, it is important to remember that it would take significantly longer if each case in the MDL remained as an individual lawsuit.

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  1. American Bar Association. “Multidistrict Litigation: Dominating the Federal Docket.” Retrieved from: https://www.americanbar.org/groups/litigation/publications/litigation-news/business-litigation/multidistrict-litigation-dominating-federal-docket/. Accessed on May 12, 2023.
  2. Cornell Law School. “28 U.S. Code § 1407 – Multidistrict litigation.” Retrieved from: https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/28/1407. Accessed on May 12, 2023.
  3. United States District Court: Northern District of California. “Information about Multi-district Litigation (MDL).” Retrieved from: https://www.cand.uscourts.gov/multidistrict_litigation/. Accessed on May 12, 2023.
  4. United States Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation. “Checklist for Filing a New MDL Motion.” Retrieved from: https://www.jpml.uscourts.gov/sites/jpml/files/Checklist%20for%20New%20MDL%20Motion-3-2011.pdf. Accessed on May 12, 2023.
  5. United States Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation. “Pending MDLs.” Retrieved from: https://www.jpml.uscourts.gov/pending-mdls-0. Accessed on May 12, 2023.
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