The term multidistrict litigation (MDL) refers to many individual cases that get transferred from multiple districts around the United States to one federal district court because these cases involve at least one common factual question. MDL cases originally get filed in state and federal courts around the country.
When the legal community realizes that there are hundreds or thousands of similar cases making similar allegations against a defendant or group of defendants, the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation (JPML) decides whether to consolidate and transfer the cases to one federal district court. This is among the steps that lead to a multi-district litigation.
The United States Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation
Since 1968, the United States Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation (also called the MDL Panel) has evaluated whether to transfer individual lawsuits to one federal district. The rationale behind this process is that doing so:
- Avoids duplication of discovery because the parties only have to collect the information need to gather the evidence to prove their case one time for all the consolidated claims. If the cases did not get consolidated, the parties in the hundreds or thousands of individual cases would have to go through the same discovery steps in each separate lawsuit.
- Achieves more consistent outcomes. One complaint about America’s legal system is that one judge might dismiss a lawsuit, and a different judge might award $1 million in damages on cases with identical facts. When one judge or a small number of judges working together handle all of the transferred cases, the court rulings are more likely to be consistent and fair.
- Saves money, since handling hundreds or thousands of trials is extraordinarily expensive for the court system as well as the plaintiffs and defendants. By consolidating cases, specific facts need only get proved one time, not many times in separate lawsuits. For example, hiring one expert witness to testify one time in the consolidated cases costs far less than hiring experts separately for each of the lawsuits.
The MDL Panel has two tasks:
- Decide if multiple cases should get transferred to one federal district because the lawsuits all contain at least one common question of fact, and
- Choose the judge or judges who will handle the consolidated or coordinated proceedings after such transfer.
When the MDL Panel answers the first question of common factual issues as “yes,” the individual lawsuits get transferred to the federal district the MDL Panel selected. Unlike a class action case, however, MDL lawsuits are still individual lawsuits. Any claims that do not get dismissed, settled, or resolved at trial in the MDL coordinated proceeding get transferred back to the courts where the plaintiffs filed them.
Types of MDL Cases
MDL cases tend to center around products or events that allegedly harmed a large number of people. Prescription drugs, medical devices, chemical substances, and natural or environmental disasters can lead to MDL cases.
The Steps of Multidistrict Litigation
Identifying, transferring, and administering large numbers of lawsuits from many different judicial districts around the country requires the consistent implementation of an organizational strategy. The stages might differ, depending on the subject matter of the individual lawsuits. Here are the MDL steps the courts follow in managing multidistrict litigation in products liability cases:
- The MDL Panel becomes aware of multiple lawsuits in different districts centering on a common issue, like the asbestos injury litigation begun in the 1980s.
- The MDL Panel evaluates whether the individual lawsuits should get consolidated into one MDL case.
- If the MDL Panel decides to open an MDL action, the Panel files a transfer order in the office of the clerk of the court where the plaintiff filed the original lawsuit. The order transfers the case to the judge who will handle the consolidated cases.
- From that moment, the original court no longer has jurisdiction of the case.
- After the MDL Panel creates the MDL case and transfers cases to it, lawyers and parties who have similar cases can request transfer to the MDL case.
- The judge in the MDL case (transferee judge) has the same authority as in any other federal lawsuit.
- The transferee judge handles all pretrial matters, including discovery, disputes about evidence, and ruling on motions. This judge can hold trials on a few selected cases, called bellwether cases. Bellwether cases can help the parties and the court learn essential information about whether plaintiffs can prove their claims and if the defendants have a valid defense.
- After a few bellwether trials, the transferee judge can instruct the attorneys and parties to try to resolve their individual cases consistent with how the bellwether cases went. Bellwether cases help to set a value on some claims and show which cases should get dismissed.
There might be hundreds or even thousands of individual lawsuits consolidated in one MDL action. Very little will happen in the vast majority of those cases until after the bellwether trials. The unresolved cases that get transferred back to their original courts from the MDL action can go to trial in those courts.
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