What Does It Mean When Class Actions Are Consolidated?

Understanding Multidistrict Litigation

In many cases where large numbers of people have been injured or harmed by a defective product or by negligence, it is not uncommon for multiple individual lawsuits or multiple class action suits to be filed in several federal courts across the US. In some extreme cases, thousands of separate lawsuits may be filed, and/or dozens of class action suits. This creates an incredibly cumbersome, expensive, time-consuming situation.

In response, Congress has developed multidistrict litigation, or MDLs. With multidistrict litigation, all those individual lawsuits or class action cases are combined and moved to a single federal court. There are several benefits of this centralized litigation process. Namely, MDLs save time and money, and more consistent outcomes can be achieved.

Examples of cases where MDL consolidations are likely to occur include:

  • Prescription drug cases
  • Defective medical devices
  • Securities fraud
  • Defective products

MDL cases are overseen by the United States Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation or the MDL Panel. This panel was established by an Act of Congress in 1968 (28 U.S.C. §1407). The purpose of the MDL Panel is to identify when cases should be consolidated, to appoint the judge/s who will preside, and assign the court where the consolidated proceedings will take place.

What Happens After Cases are Consolidated into an MDL?

To consolidate lawsuits into an MDL case, attorneys representing individual clients or class action cases can request that the MDL Panel create an MDL. When an MDL is created, the various plaintiffs will retain their original attorney. However, the MDL panel will assign a group of attorneys to help coordinate the proceedings and resolve the case.

Just as with traditional lawsuits, there MDL cases will also feature:

  • A discovery period
  • Pretrial motions
  • Witnesses called
  • Evidence presented

Bellwether Trials

Another common feature of MDL cases is the bellwether trial. Though not always used, many judges will identify several individual cases from the MDL consolidation and have them be litigated individually as bellwether trials. Bellwether trials serve as a test run in cases with thousands of plaintiffs. Once conducted, the outcomes of bellwether trials are legally binding, but they can still significantly impact how large multidistrict litigation cases are resolved.

In particular, a bellwether trial can give attorneys on both sides a sense of how juries will likely perceive these cases. For example, suppose it’s found that juries overwhelmingly find in favor of the plaintiffs in the bellwether trials. In that case, it may influence the defendant to proceed with negotiating a settlement instead of moving forward with a jury trial with the remaining MDL case. These settlements are frequently referred to as global settlements, denoting that they extend across all the remaining lawsuits consolidated under the MDL.

However, if settlement negotiations fail, individual cases can be transferred back to their original courts, and you will work with your personal attorney to decide how you will proceed.

Recent Example of an MDL Case

With nearly 250,000 plaintiffs (down from a previously reported 290,000+ plaintiffs), the current 3M earplug lawsuit is the largest consolidation of mass torts in US history. In this lawsuit, hundreds of thousands of military servicemembers have alleged that earplugs (Combat Arms Earplug Version 2) sold to the military caused hearing problems. The case is presided over by U.S. District Judge M. Casey Rodgers and is being litigated in Florida.

As of September 1, 2022, 3M has been ordered to participate in settlement mediation. Special Master Randi S. Ellis will run mediation within the next 30 days, and 3M company officials and a corporate representative with authority to authorize a full settlement must attend the mediation. This mediation order comes after a recent ruling by the Bankruptcy Court that the Aearo Technologies bankruptcy filing will not protect 3M from possible liability in the earplug MDL.

Do you have questions about multidistrict litigation for mass tort or class action cases? Reach out to Golomb Legal. With our extensive experience handling consumer class action lawsuits, we are well-versed in all aspects of MDLs and can help you understand what consolidation means for your case.