Large complex civil actions, such as product liability lawsuits, typically have one or more issues in common. When similar lawsuits are filed in different federal courts, it can cause a drain on the courts’ limited resources. It can also result in inconsistent rulings from different courts on the same issue.
In order to streamline the process, federal law allows for multidistrict litigation – a process in which similar federal civil lawsuits are transferred to a centralized federal district court. While multidistrict litigation may seem similar to class action suits, one main difference is that in multidistrict litigation each claim is heard individually, rather than as a group.
How Multidistrict Litigation Works
The United States Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation (MDL Panel) oversees the assignment of multidistrict litigation matters. Seven federal judges who are appointed by the United States Supreme Court Chief Justice sit on the MDL Panel. They determine whether federal civil lawsuits should be consolidated, select the federal district court where the cases will be transferred, and then assign a judge to oversee the pretrial proceedings and discovery. Once the pretrial proceedings are complete, the individual suits are transferred back to the courts in which they were filed to be heard.
Typically, hundreds to thousands of federal lawsuits are grouped together and transferred to the federal district court handling the multidistrict litigation. In product liability lawsuits, this occurs quite often. For example, the hip manufacturer DePuy Orthopaedics was hit with thousands of federal lawsuits related to its metal-on-metal ASR replacement hip models. Because they share common issues of fact, many of these lawsuits have been combined into a multidistrict ligation matter. In addition, there are several other multidistrict litigation matters involving other replacement hip manufacturers.
The Benefits of Multidistrict Litigation
There are a number of advantages for plaintiffs whose lawsuits have been combined into multidistrict litigation, including:
- Sharing of Resources: the plaintiffs’ attorneys will be able to share their resources – thus creating a united front.
- Expert Judge: because the judge will become an expert during the course of the case and can issue rulings that affect multiple parties, the defendants may feel pressured to settle the cases.
Under federal law, if a lawsuit is still pending after the completion of pretrial proceedings and discovery, the case must be sent back to the court where it was originally filed for trial. This can be favorable to plaintiffs because oftentimes the multidistrict litigation court may be located hundreds of miles from the plaintiff’s home. A trial by a local federal court will ensure that the plaintiff is not burdened by the costs of travel and that her case is heard by a jury comprised of local residents.