Multidistrict Litigation (MDL) for Product Liability Cases

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

Updated By , J.D.

When lawsuits involve dangerous drugs, defective products, and other complex issues affecting large numbers of people, sometimes the federal court system uses multidistrict litigation (MDL) to better manage the cases. In multidistrict litigation, multiple civil cases that share a common issue are transferred to a single district court. That court then handles all discovery and pretrial proceedings for the lawsuits.

The goal of MDL is to conserve resources and foster consistent court rulings across different lawsuits that involve similar legal issues, often while coaxing the parties toward settlement. Read on to learn more about MDL.

What Is Multidistrict Litigation?

Multidistrict litigation is a special procedure in which federal civil (noncriminal) cases from around the country are transferred to one court. The cases must have one or more questions of fact (issues to be determined by looking at the evidence) in common. One judge manages the litigation during the pretrial and discovery process. If a case does not settle during MDL, or is not dismissed during MDL, it is sent back to the original court for trial.

Goals of MDL

In 1968 Congress created the MDL system in order to coordinate federal complex litigation filed in multiple districts. The goals of MDL are efficiency and economy. By consolidating the discovery proceedings and pretrial motions, the parties save money and time. The judge overseeing the MDL will also typically try to steer the parties toward an agreeable resolution of the case, via global settlement.

MDL conserves judicial time and resources, too. Rather than having 100 judges across the country hear similar pretrial motions and preside over similar discovery disputes, the one MDL judge handles all of it.

MDL also promotes consistency in legal rulings. Rather than having several judges rule differently on the same pretrial issue, the MDL judge (who becomes an expert in the factual and legal issues) makes one decision that applies to all of the lawsuits.

What Kinds of Cases Are Subject to MDL?

Multidistrict litigation works well for large, complex cases that involve one or more common issues of fact. Here are some examples of common issues of fact that might warrant the formation of an 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?

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, MDLs have been used in a number of high profile injury-related cases, including:

How MDL Works

The U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation decides when multiple lawsuits should be consolidated into an MDL. The panel is appointed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States and consists of seven members.

If the panel determines that a group of federal civil cases from around the country should be centralized into one case, it transfers the cases from the courts where they were first filed to a single federal district court. Cases that are filed after the formation of the MDL can later be transferred also—these are called tag-along cases.

The MDL judge presides over pretrial motions, discovery proceedings, and settlement conferences. The judge might dismiss some claims, or entire cases, and will preside over pretrial proceedings and discovery for the cases that go forward.

Next, the court will schedule a few "bellwether" trials, which will serve as an indicator of what the parties might expect in their individual lawsuits (which legal arguments are effective; range of likely damages, etc.)

What happens in the bellwether trials can have a big effect on the other cases in the MDL. If the bellwether plaintiffs have success, the defendant will be very motivated to negotiate a settlement of remaining claims.

The judge will encourage the parties to reach a global settlement applicable to all MDL cases. But if a global settlement can't be reached, individual cases are sent back to the original court where they were first filed, where the trial will take place.

Pros and Cons of MDL Proceedings

For both defendants and plaintiffs, there are pros and cons in MDL proceedings.

Pros for defendants. For large corporate defendants, it is usually cheaper and easier to litigate issues of fact in front of one court instead of in many courts. Defendants also don't like their witnesses to be deposed many times, which is what happens if numerous lawsuits are not consolidated into an MDL. Multiple depositions increase the likelihood that witnesses will give inconsistent answers.

Cons for defendants. On the other hand, publicity surrounding an MDL can prompt new plaintiffs to file lawsuits; not a good thing for defendants.

Pros for plaintiffs. In MDL proceedings, plaintiffs' attorneys can pool their resources and coordinate efforts, increasing the money and resources available to litigate the case.

If you're interested in learning about the existence or details of an MDL for a particular drug, medical device, or other product, it might make sense to contact an attorney specializing in products liability. Get tips on finding the right personal injury lawyer for you and your case.

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