Many personal injury and product liability lawsuits are handled through multidistrict litigation (MDL). Since Congress created the MDL process in 1968, more than 2,880 MDLs have been created, centralizing more than 600,000 lawsuits.
What Is Multidistrict Litigation?
Multidistrict litigation is a specialized process used by the U.S. District Court system to centralize complex lawsuits for pretrial proceedings. Each lawsuit remains separate, but discovery, depositions, and decisions about common questions of fact are addressed at the same time. The goal of MDL centralization is to save time and money, making the process more efficient for both sides of the case, as well as to provide a more consistent outcome across similar types of cases.
MDLs can cover a wide variety of lawsuits, including cases related to major accidents or disasters (such as train or airplane crashes), securities fraud, antitrust, false advertising, data breaches, product liability cases (including defective drugs and malfunctioning medical devices), and employment issues. Specific requirements for an MDL are determined when it is created, and individual cases are assessed for eligibility as part of the MDL before being transferred.
Are Multidistrict Litigation and Class Action Lawsuits the Same?
Both multidistrict litigation and class action lawsuits are types of mass torts - that is, lawsuits filed because many people have suffered the same or a very similar injury. However, MDLs and class action lawsuits differ in how the cases are consolidated:
- Class action lawsuits are filed by one or a few individuals on behalf of everyone who has suffered the same exact injury (known as the "class membership").
- MDL cases are filed by individuals who have suffered similar injuries from the same product (or same type of product), the severity or expense of which may differ from person to person
Lawsuits transferred to an MDL are consolidated only for purposes of pretrial procedures, such as the filing of a complaint and the discovery phase. Each plaintiff in an MDL still gets an individual trial, unlike class action lawsuits where all the class members receive a single trial.
Multidistrict litigation and class action lawsuits each have their benefits and detriments. Class action lawsuits are typically used only when each member of a class has experienced the same exact economic losses (such as the cost of a defective product). MDLs are often used for lawsuits where people suffer from similar injuries or losses, but the extent of the damages differ from case to case.
How Multidistrict Litigation Works
In many ways, multidistrict litigation is the same as other types of lawsuits, with judges, juries, trials, verdicts, and even settlements. The biggest difference is that MDLs have a set of procedures defined by the overseeing judge - called case management orders - that make certain parts of the legal process easier and more consistent for all of the cases in the MDL.
How MDLs Are Created
MDLs are created by the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation (JPML), which is also known as the MDL panel. The JPML is a special panel of seven U.S. District Court judges appointed by the Chief Justice of the United States. The panel serves several different roles, including:
- Deciding which cases should be centralized and which should remain separate
- Determining which federal district court should oversee the MDL
- Finalizing orders for "tag-along" cases transferred to an MDL
In order to create an MDL, one or more plaintiffs or defendants must file a motion to centralize. The motion will list multiple lawsuits in different U.S. District Courts that have the same or similar questions of fact, arguing that it would be more efficient to manage all of these cases in a single district. The JPML will then review the motion, assess the likelihood of other cases being filed (potentially in even more districts), and then make a decision about whether to centralize the cases into an MDL.
Each new MDL is assigned a number and referred to by that number (for example, MDL 2741 for Roundup lawsuits). The district court assigned to an MDL is responsible for handling the administrative details and pretrial motions for the case. The JPML provides oversight of ongoing MDLs and publishes statistics related to MDL proceedings.
How Lawsuits Are Transferred to Multidistrict Litigation
When an MDL is created, the lawsuits included in the initial motion to centralize will be transferred to their new district court. Over time, additional lawsuits may be filed in federal district court that are eligible for transfer to the MDL. The judge overseeing the MDL can issue a conditional transfer order to move these cases to the MDL, though the transfer itself is not final until the JPML issues a final transfer order.
From time to time, cases may be removed from an MDL if the judge determines that they do not fit the MDL's criteria. For example, this might happen if a case involves a different drug or medical device than other cases in the MDL, or if the symptoms experienced by the plaintiff were different than those experienced by other plaintiffs. In such cases, the lawsuit will be transferred back to its original district court and handled individually.
Complex Litigation in State Courts
Many states have a process similar to multidistrict litigation that applies to complex cases that cross different municipalities, counties, or other judicial districts within the state. For example, New Jersey has a Multicounty Litigation process, while New York uses a Litigation Coordinating Panel to centralize litigation in state courts. California, on the other hand, has several Complex Litigation Centers in various cities, including San Francisco, Santa Clara, Orange, Alameda and Contra Costa. The Philadelphia Complex Litigation Center is one of the most active venues for mass torts in the country.
The National Center for State Courts maintains a list of state-specific complex litigation links.
A bellwether trial is the first trial in an MDL, named such because the word "bellwether" refers to an early indicator or predictor. Bellwether trials are used to gauge the probable outcome of other trials in the MDL, giving both plaintiffs and defendants an opportunity to adjust their strategies or seek a settlement. In some cases, several bellwether trials may be conducted to represent the entire set of cases within the MDL.
The judge overseeing an MDL has several options for selecting the cases best suited to bellwether status. Often, the process begins by categorizing cases that address common issues and legal questions. Then, the judge will typically call a conference meeting with attorneys for both plaintiffs and defendants so they can offer input and create a pool of representative cases. The best bellwether cases in each category will cover a range of issues that could come up later in the MDL.
Once the preliminary cases are selected and all pretrial motions have been resolved, the bellwether trials can begin. For multiple bellwether trials, some time will be added between the trials to ensure that issues can be resolved or the judge can issue additional case management orders for future cases.
MDL Settlements and Termination
A settlement is reached when representatives for both plaintiffs and defendants work together to create a master settlement agreement. The MDL judge will review the agreement and then assign a settlement master, who is a neutral third-party that oversees details of the settlement and resolves points of contention between the parties. Individual plaintiffs can then choose to accept the settlement agreement or pursue their case at trial.
An MDL will be closed (terminated) once all the cases in it are either settled, tried, dismissed or transferred back to their original district court. The MDL judge will issue an order recommending the MDL's termination, and the JPML will review that order then make a final determination at one of its regular meetings.
List of Product Liability MDLs
|Drug Lawsuit MDLs|
|Medical Device Lawsuit MDLs|
|Consumer Product Lawsuit MDLs|
One of the first trials in an MDL that provides useful information about how other cases are likely to go.
Conditional Transfer Order / Transfer Order
A conditional transfer order is issued by a judge overseeing an MDL to transfer new cases into the MDL. The transfer order is conditional until the MDL Panel hears oral arguments and issues a final transfer order.
Conference meetings (or status conferences) are meetings held by an MDL judge to discuss issues related to pretrial proceedings, such as the discovery process and how depositions will be conducted. Conference meetings typically include attorneys representing both plaintiffs and defendants, and potentially other interested parties.
Tag-along cases are cases that are added to an MDL after the initial transfer order is made. These cases involve common issues and "tag along" with the initial lawsuit in the MDL.
Transferor Court / Transferee Court
When a case is transferred from federal district court to another for purposes of an MDL, the court it is being transferred from is called the "transferor court," while the court being transferred to is called the "transferee court."