The legal term "tort" is defined as a wrongful act that causes injury to another. A mass tort, therefore, is a wrong, usually committed by a large corporation, that injures many people.
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What Happens When a "Mass Tort" Is Committed?
When a company commits a "mass tort," those who are injured may be able to sue the company and recover compensation.
For instance, assume a pharmaceutical company releases a defective drug into the marketplace, and that drug is sold to millions of Americans. Patients who were injured as a result of the defect – say, a faulty design – may be able to sue the pharmaceutical company for medical bills related to their treatment, as well as any other losses (e.g. lost wages, physical pain) stemming from their injuries.
What Would Give Rise to a Mass Tort Lawsuit?
- Defective Products
- Prescription drugs
- Over-the-counter drugs
- Medical devices
- Environmental Disasters
- Oil spills
- Water pollution
- Pesticide Poisoning
- Mass Disasters
- Airplane crashes
- Coal mining accidents
- Oil refinery explosions
Well-Known Examples of Mass Torts
Exposure to asbestos causes mesothelioma, lung cancer and other serious medical conditions. Many of the companies that manufactured products containing asbestos knew as early as the 1920s that inhaling the mineral could cause terminal medical conditions, yet failed to protect (or even warn) their employees and customers. So far, asbestos companies have set aside more than $30 billion to compensate asbestos victims and their families. To this day, lawsuits continue to be filed on behalf of victims of asbestos-related diseases.
Lead poisoning can result in reduced IQs, learning disabilities, as well as attention and behavioral disorders. Infants and young children are the most vulnerable to the adverse health effects of lead, which was once a common ingredient in paint and gasoline. Although the United States banned the use of lead paint in 1978, many older houses and apartment buildings still contain lead paint on their walls. As the lead paint flakes or peels off, people who live in houses and apartments with lead paint are at risk for ingesting paint chips or breathing in the toxic dust given off by the paint. Attorneys have filed thousands of lawsuits across the country on behalf of those poisoned by lead paint. These lawsuits are usually filed against lead paint companies or landlords and property owners who failed to remove and replace lead paint.
For decades, the tobacco industry misled their customers about the dangers of smoking. In 1998, the four largest tobacco companies agreed to pay $206 billion over 25 years to state governments to compensate them for smoking-related Medicaid costs. Cigarette smokers and their survivors continue to file lawsuits against the tobacco industry and many of these lawsuits allege that cigarette companies illegally advertise their products to children. In addition, thousands of lawsuits are currently pending against the tobacco industry alleging that cigarette companies are misleading customers about the safety of so-called "light" cigarettes.
Mass Torts vs. Class Actions
A mass tort lawsuit is similar to a class action in that a mass tort involves a large number of individuals who have suffered a similar harm as a result of the same wrongful act; however, there is one key difference to keep in mind:
Mass Tort Lawsuits Are Usually Filed Individually.
Each person who was harmed as a result of a mass tort must file his or her own lawsuit. The legal rights of these individuals are not automatically protected the way class members' rights are in a class action. If a company resolves the litigation, those injured as a result of the mass tort will not receive compensation unless they have filed their own, individual lawsuits. (In some cases involving environmental disasters such as oil spills, the lawsuit may be filed as a class action, but each class member may be required to submit detailed proof of their individual damages.)
Why Can't Mass Tort Victims Just Pursue a Class Action?
Basically, the reason mass tort victims do not pursue class actions is because class actions aren't intended for these types of cases. Class action lawsuits provide legal recourse to large groups of people whose losses are not significant enough to warrant costly individual litigation. Mass tort victims, on the other hand, have likely suffered a serious injury, which could have resulted in thousands of dollars in medical bills, significant physical and emotional suffering, and lost wages. The monetary significance of these losses justifies the cost of individual litigation.
Furthermore, those who were injured as a result of a mass tort typically suffer different degrees of harm, and each mass tort plaintiff's lawsuit should seek compensation proportionate to the level of harm he or she has suffered. Typically, in a class action, each person affected by the suit generally has suffered a similar level of physical or financial injury and will usually receive the same amount of compensation if the lawsuit is successful.
What Is Multidistrict Litigation?
With a mass tort, hundreds, or even thousands, of lawsuits are filed in federal district courts across the country. To increase the efficiency of the judicial process and to ensure consistent rulings, a panel of federal judges may rule that the lawsuits should be consolidated into one proceeding before a single judge. When lawsuits filed in multiple district courts are consolidated into a single proceeding, the litigation is referred to as a multidistrict litigation.
Learn more about multidistrict litigation.
Still Not Clear?
Mass Tort Example
A drug company releases a vaginal mesh product, which is implanted in hundreds of thousands of women across the country. Allegations surface that the implant was defectively designed and that the manufacturer failed to properly outline the products' risks to patients and the medical community. Litigation stemming from this design defect and failure to warn will proceed as mass tort lawsuits.
Why Isn't This a Class Action?
Each woman injured by the defective mesh implants has suffered a serious injury, which has potentially resulted in thousands of dollars in medical bills, serious physical and emotional suffering, and weeks or months of lost wages. Furthermore, each woman suffered varying degrees of harm, as the products' side effects range from pelvic pain to mesh erosion requiring surgical intervention. Because of the extent of their losses, and the difference between their injuries, they are not suited for a class action lawsuit.
Class Action Example
An appliance manufacturer releases a defective dishwasher into the marketplace that is prone to failure within five years of purchase. Allegations surface that a design error is leading to this premature failure. A class action lawsuit is filed on behalf of all U.S. residents who bought the appliance within the last four years.
Why Isn't This a Mass Tort Case?
Although thousands of people could have purchased the defective dishwasher, the cost of replacing each consumer's dishwasher is less than $800. It would not be financially viable for each consumer to file a lawsuit seeking $800 in damages, as the cost of litigating the case would outweigh the potential recovery; however, it would be financially viable to file a class action lawsuit on behalf of 10,000 consumers who suffered $800 in damages. To the courts, each consumer has suffered minimal and similar harm ($800 to replace a broken dishwasher).