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What Is an MDL Class Action?

court roomYou are in an MDL. But you do not understand what it is.

You are not alone. Few mass tort participants and even fewer lawyers understand what an MDL really is and how it works. Yet more than 50% of all federal lawsuits are in an MDL.

We call an MDL a “sort of” class action. Because that is what an MDL lawsuit is. A classic “class action” lawsuit is one in which the same parties have injured a group of people under similar facts. Sometimes, many people have been injured or killed by negligence that has common threads regarding how the injuries occurred, but the victims have very different types of injuries.

In an MDL, there is not a single trial that resolves all of the cases. Still, the case is consolidated under one federal judge who handles all of the discovery matters common to all defendants. Using the 3M defective earplug class action as an example, there would be written discovery to 3M, witnesses will be deposed from 3M, the military, and relevant medical experts.

The MDL will even conduct what are called de bene esse depositions (or trial depositions), in which witnesses give testimony by videotape. This testimony can be played by video at trial in any case involving these defective earplugs. The witnesses’ testimony has the same value as if the witnesses were testifying live in front of the jury at trial.

  • Answers to your questions about the MDL process and how it impacts your case

These are the eight MDLs our lawyers are most focused on in 2023.

Why Do We Have MDLs?

The efficiencies of consolidating cases in the MDL often have the most significant impact on the effort required to gather and review all of the relevant documents in the case. In significant drug and medical device litigation, there will usually be millions of records sought and produced to the plaintiffs’ lawyers.

The pharmaceutical companies want to avoid the costs of providing the documents to each plaintiff’s lawyer and the plaintiffs’ lawyers similarly do not wish to take on the effort alone. The MDL allows a mechanism for both sides to accomplish this arduous task cost-effectively. It is a rare win-win in the zero-sum world of litigation.

The MDL provides the tools in these class action type cases for plaintiffs’ lawyers to try a case on the defendant’s liability with little or no work on their part because that part of the case has been primarily completed for them. What these lawyers still have to develop – and often the most challenging part – is the causation case, i.e., did the defendant’s negligence cause the plaintiff’s injuries.

What Is a Bellwether Trial?

In mass tort cases with large numbers of victims, the MDL judge will often select a group of what we call “bellwether plaintiffs” for initial trials. These trials are needed because the failure to reach a settlement in a case means that the parties have a fundamental disagreement about the relative strengths and weaknesses of their allegations or defenses. The thinking is that a few trials help clear up the value of the cases. This gets both sides in multidistrict litigation — particularly the more intransigent one — to look at their case more realistically.

Will My MDL Case Go to Trial?

Statistically, the answer is a resounding no. Few MDL lawsuits got to trial. Usually, the cases reach a global settlement or, in some cases where the claims lack merit, are dismissed.

How Much Are MDL Settlement Amounts?

Victim compensation in an MDL varies wildly.  Some average over $1 million per victim, and some are only a few thousand dollars. Most MDL class action settlement amounts are less than you would expect if you prevailed at trial. Much less. Some lawyers advocate staying out of the MDL settlement and trying your case because the compromise settlement is sometimes far from full compensation for the injury or death.

What Is an MDL Census Registry and How Might It Help Me?

An MDL census registry is used in MDL class actions to allow plaintiffs to register their claims with a third-party claims administrator without filing a lawsuit. The benefit for a plaintiff is that it tolls the running of the statute of limitations without having to move the case forward or even pay the cost of filing the lawsuit.  This third-party administrator helps get the relevant information to the case, typically the plaintiff’s medical records and/or history of product use.

In many MDL class actions, the census registry allows the plaintiff to sit and do nothing and wait for a settlement check while the defendant can get proof that the plaintiffs meet the eligibility requirements for the case.

What Is a Registry in an MDL?

In an MDL, a registry is a centralized database or system used to manage and track information related to the numerous individual cases consolidated under the MDL class action.  A registry allows you to file a lawsuit without a lawsuit. So the statute of limitations is tolled while you are in the registry, and you can sit on the sidelines hoping for a reasonable settlement amount as the litigation unfolds.

A registry in an MDL generally performs the following functions:

  • Case tracking: The registry keeps track of each case within the MDL, recording essential details such as case names, plaintiffs, defendants, case numbers, filing dates, and case statuses. It helps the parties and the judge have a real feel for how many claims are out there and the ability to categorize the cases generally. This is a big deal when evaluating the settlement of a large class.
  • Document management: The registry serves as a repository for all documents associated with the MDL, including pleadings, motions, discovery materials, court orders, and correspondence. This centralized system ensures that all parties have access to the relevant documents and can efficiently manage the substantial volume of information.
  • Coordination: The registry facilitates communication and coordination between the different parties and legal teams involved in the MDL. It may include contact information for attorneys, court personnel, and other stakeholders and any necessary procedural guidelines or protocols.
  • Settlement tracking: In many MDL class action lawsuits, many cases may reach a settlement before trial. The registry may be used to track these settlements, including their terms and the parties involved, as well as to monitor any outstanding settlement negotiations.

What Is a Registry in an MDL?

A census in an MDL refers to a count of individual lawsuits transferred to the class action from different jurisdictions. When multiple cases involving similar issues or claims are filed in different federal courts nationwide, the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation (JPML) may consolidate those cases into a single MDL in one federal court for coordinated pretrial proceedings.
Once the cases are transferred to the MDL court, the court will conduct a census, which involves identifying and counting all the cases transferred to the MDL. This allows the court and the parties involved to keep track of the number of cases, the nature of the claims, and the plaintiffs and defendants involved.
The census is an essential part of the MDL process. It helps the court get its arms around the litigation.  By identifying all of the cases that are part of the MDL, the court can ensure that all relevant parties are notified of significant developments in the case, that all necessary pretrial motions and discovery are conducted in an organized and efficient manner, and that all cases are resolved in a timely and fair manner.

Getting an MDL Law Firm for Your Claim

Cases and Resources

  • Andrew D. Bradt, Radical Proposal: The Multidistrict Litigation Act of 1968, 165 U. Pa. L. Rev. 831 (2017).
  • Eldon E. Fallon, et al.: Bellwether Trials in Multidistrict Litigation, 82 Tul. L. Rev. 2323, 2325, 2337–40, 2342 (2008).
  • In re Farmers Ins. Overtime Pay Litigation, 300 F. Supp. 2d 1020 (D. Or. 2003) (MDL judge ordinarily transfers cases after pretrial proceedings, but if all parties agree, the MDL judge can try cases – which has become the norm).
  • In re Factor VIII or IX Concentrate Blood Products, 169 F.R.D. 632 (N.D. Ill. 1996) (MDL discovery should relate to issues relevant to all or at least most plaintiffs).
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