Multidistrict Litigation (MDL) for Product Liability Cases

Multidistrict litigation (MDL) consolidates complex cases so they're managed by one court.

By , J.D., University of San Francisco School of Law
Updated by Dan Ray, Attorney · University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law

When lawsuits involve dangerous drugs, defective products, and other complex issues affecting lots of people, federal courts sometimes use a process called "multidistrict litigation" (MDL) to better manage the cases. In multidistrict litigation, civil suits that share common factual issues are transferred to a single federal court to supervise pretrial activities like discovery.

The goals of MDL are to conserve judicial resources, foster consistent court rulings across different lawsuits, and, if possible, coax the parties toward settlement. A well-managed MDL will meet at least some of these goals, but it can also bring some disadvantages.

We'll explain what multidistrict litigation is, the kinds of cases it's often used for, how it works, and more.

What Is Multidistrict Litigation?

Multidistrict litigation is a procedure in which federal civil lawsuits (noncriminal cases) from around the country are transferred to one federal district court. The cases must have one or more common questions of fact, meaning issues that are decided by looking at the evidence.

One judge manages the litigation during discovery and other pretrial matters. If a case doesn't settle or get dismissed during MDL, the MDL rules say it should be sent back to the original court for trial. Sometimes, though, the MDL court will conduct trials of a few cases (called "bellweather trials"—see below) in the hope of helping to resolve the remaining MDL cases.

How Do Cases Get Assigned to MDL?

The U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation decides when lawsuits should be consolidated into MDL. The Panel, consisting of seven federal district court judges, is appointed by the Chief Justice of the United States. A party to a lawsuit can ask the Panel to transfer cases to MDL, or the Panel can decide to transfer cases to MDL on its own.

If the Panel determines that a group of cases should be consolidated into MDL, it transfers the cases from the courts where they were filed to a single federal district court. Lawsuits that are filed after the formation of the MDL—called "tag-along" cases—also can be transferred to the MDL court.

What Is Discovery?

Discovery is a process that allows each party to a case to find out about the facts, claims, and defenses the other parties might use or rely on during the trial. It begins after a lawsuit is filed and normally lasts for six months to a year, perhaps longer in complicated cases.

Discovery is governed by court rules called the "rules of civil procedure." (Here's an electronic copy of the 2023 federal rules of civil procedure so you can see what they look like.)

Common discovery techniques include:

  • depositions—orally questioning parties and witnesses under oath
  • requests for production of documents—asking other parties to produce documents for inspection and copying, and
  • interrogatories—written questions that other parties must answer in writing and under oath.

Goals of MDL

The goals of MDL are efficiency and economy. By consolidating discovery and pretrial motions, the parties save money and time. Multidistrict litigation also conserves scarce judicial resources and promotes the efficient handling of similar lawsuits. The MDL judge typically tries to steer the parties toward an agreeable resolution of all the MDL cases, sometimes called a "global settlement."

What Kinds of Cases Are Assigned to MDL?

Multidistrict litigation works well for large, complex cases that involve common issues of fact. Here are some examples of fact issues that might warrant the formation of MDL:

  • Is there a link between a certain pharmaceutical drug and the development of cancer?
  • Does a certain product contain dangerous levels of a toxic chemical?
  • Did a company's officers make false statements of fact about the company's products?

Some types of cases naturally lend themselves to MDL, such as those involving:

  • dangerous drugs, medical devices, and other product liability claims
  • airplane crashes
  • securities fraud
  • intellectual property infringement, and
  • employment practices.

In recent years, MDL has been used in a number of high-profile product liability cases, including:

How MDL Works

The MDL judge hears and decides a variety of pretrial matters, like motions, class action certifications, discovery disputes, and settlement conferences. The judge might dismiss some claims or even entire cases, and will preside over the cases that aren't dismissed.

The MDL rules say that once all pretrial matters are finished, the cases must be transferred back to the district courts where they were filed (the legal term is "remanded"). Sometimes, though, with the parties' consent, the MDL court holds one or more "bellwether" trials.

Bellwether trials usually involve factual and legal issues common to all MDL cases. Their outcomes can indicate what the parties might expect in their individual lawsuits—which legal arguments are effective, a range of likely damages, and more. If the bellwether plaintiffs have success, the defendant likely will be motivated to negotiate a settlement of the remaining cases.

The MDL judge will encourage a global settlement of all MDL cases. If a global settlement can't be reached, after any bellwether trials are done, individual cases are remanded for trial.

Pros and Cons of MDL

MDL offers pros and cons for both plaintiffs and defendants.

Pros for Defendants

For large corporate defendants, it's cheaper and easier to litigate common issues of fact in front of one court instead of many. Defendants also don't like their witnesses to be deposed over and over, which will happen if lawsuits aren't consolidated into MDL. The more times they're deposed, the greater the chance that witnesses will give inconsistent answers.

Cons for Defendants

Defendants sometimes try to make large, complex lawsuits as expensive and time consuming for plaintiffs as possible. The same MDL efficiencies that benefit defendants can also benefit plaintiffs. In addition, the publicity surrounding an MDL can prompt new plaintiffs to file lawsuits, something defendants look to avoid.

Pros for Plaintiffs

In MDL, plaintiffs' attorneys can pool their resources and coordinate their efforts, increasing the money and resources available to litigate the case. Favorable decisions will be binding in all MDL cases unless the MDL judge limits the scope or application of a ruling.

Cons for Plaintiffs

Plaintiffs and their attorneys sometimes give up a bit of control over their cases. The MDL judge doesn't have time to hear arguments from dozens or hundreds of plaintiffs' attorneys. Working with the parties, the judge will designate a lead attorney and a leadership team to manage the MDL for all the plaintiffs.

Find Out More About MDL

Multidistrict litigation promotes cost-effectiveness and efficiency, but it can also add a layer of complexity to what's already, in all likelihood, a complicated case. If you're interested in learning about the existence or details of multidistrict litigation for a particular drug, a medical device, or some other kind of product liability case, think about contacting an experienced MDL lawyer.

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