In a multidistrict litigation ("MDL"), individual lawsuits that have been filed in federal courthouses across the country are consolidated and transferred to a single federal court.
When Are MDLs Used?
Congress created MDLs to save time and money and to ensure similar outcomes in lawsuits that involve large numbers of people and contain similar allegations. MDLs often center on dangerous prescription drugs, defective medical devices and securities fraud. They sometimes involve thousands of individual lawsuits or dozens of class actions.
How MDLs Get Started
When numerous lawsuits have been filed by plaintiffs who have suffered a similar harm caused by the same defective product or act of corporate negligence, the attorneys representing clients in these lawsuits may ask the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation to create an MDL to consolidate the cases. It is important to note that even if lawsuits are consolidated into an MDL, you will still retain your individual attorney. (This applies only to mass tort lawsuits and not class actions, as you do not need to hire an attorney to be part of a class action. You can learn more about the difference between mass torts and class actions here.) The court will then appoint a group of lawyers from across the country to coordinate pretrial proceedings and help resolve the litigation.
What Happens Next?
After an MDL has been created, the litigation may proceed to the discovery phase. During discovery, the company being sued may be required to hand over documents that contain information relevant to allegations made in the lawsuits. In addition, witnesses may be questioned under oath during depositions and this testimony may be used at trial to support or rebut allegations in the lawsuit.
The attorneys representing clients in the MDL may also file pretrial motions with the judge regarding discovery issues and the admissibility of evidence during trial. The judge may hold hearings to determine the scope of discovery and rule on any discovery disputes that arise during the litigation.
Resolving the Cases
Once discovery is complete, the judge may select several of the individual lawsuits to proceed as bellwether trials – a sort of "test run"– although the result of the bellwether trial is binding on that particular plaintiff. Bellwether trials help both sides predict how juries may rule. For instance, if the defendants lose all or the majority of the bellwether trials, the company may want to reach a global settlement to avoid the risk and the uncertainty of a jury trial in the remaining lawsuits. If they win the bellwether trials, the company and their attorneys may decide not to establish a settlement.
At any point during the MDL, the attorneys may attempt to negotiate a global settlement of all the cases in the litigation. If the settlement negotiations prove to be unsuccessful by the conclusion of the bellwether trials, the cases are transferred back to the courts in which they were originally filed to proceed as individual lawsuits. Your attorney will then make a decision to either withdraw your suit or proceed to trial.