When a company produces a defective product, like a dangerous medication or malfunctioning medical device, a large group of people may suffer serious injuries. Under tort law, these individuals may be eligible for financial compensation through civil lawsuits — but filing hundreds of claims over similar injuries can drain court resources.
Instead, plaintiffs may pursue a class action lawsuit or multidistrict litigation (MDL), often referred to as a mass tort. These two types of mass litigation involve different procedures and a different set of injury criteria.
What Is a Class Action Lawsuit?
In a class action lawsuit, a group of individuals file a claim against the same defendant for the same injuries. The group, known as class representatives, represent the interest of hundreds or even thousands of injured plaintiffs. One attorney or team of attorneys will represent the class as a whole, instead of multiple attorneys assigned to individual plaintiffs.
Plaintiffs outside of the class representatives do not need to hire an attorney or appear in the courtroom to receive compensation. Instead, they will receive a notification telling them they may be eligible for the class action and can make a decision on whether or not they want to take part in the claim. Once the lawsuit reaches a settlement, the court will distribute the funds evenly between each individual plaintiff.
Stages of a Class Action Lawsuit
If you wish to file a class action lawsuit, your first step is to speak with an attorney to determine if your case qualifies. After this consultation, your attorney will try to find other people who have suffered the same injuries, if another class action claim is happening, and when the filing deadline is. He or she may join other lawyers working on similar litigation.
If the attorneys believe you and other plaintiffs may qualify for a class action claim, they will take the following steps to seek settlement.
- Lawsuit Filing: The attorneys will file a complaint that describes the facts of the case and the damages the plaintiffs are seeking, as well as the names of the class representatives, the lead legal counsel, and the proposed class of individuals who may qualify for the claim.
- Class Certification: Before a lawsuit can become an official class action, the presiding judge will need to certify the class. The judge will examine the facts of the case, the representative plaintiffs, and the qualifications of the legal counsel. If the judge believes the case qualifies for this type of litigation, he or she will issue a class action certification.
- Notification: After the judge certifies the claim as a class action, the attorneys will notify potential class members. The nature of this notification will vary depending on the court presiding over the case. In most cases, attorneys will notify the potential class members by writing, and they may publicize the case online for other class members to join. Each member can then choose whether or not to join the class.
- Discovery: The lawsuit will also enter the discovery process, where the attorneys representing the class will request and exchange evidence with the defendant. The lawyers will also depose witnesses and collect testimony at this stage.
- Negotiations and Trial: After discovery ends, both sides may enter pretrial negotiations. While many class action claims settle at this stage, the defendant may refuse to settle or offer an insufficient amount. If settlement is not possible, the case will proceed to trial, where each side will present their cases to the court. At the conclusion of the trial, the court will decide whether to award a settlement.
What Is a Mass Tort Claim?
Many people use the terms mass tort and multidistrict litigation (MDL) interchangeably, but they actually have two distinct meanings. A mass tort is a type of injury that multiple plaintiffs suffer, while MDL refers to the federal procedure of streamlining multiple individual lawsuits into one larger claim. A mass tort lawsuit is actually an MDL under these definitions.
An MDL also involves a large group of plaintiffs alleging negligence from the same defendant or group of defendants. To initiate an MDL, individual plaintiffs file their lawsuits in their respective courts, and the attorneys representing these clients will request that the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation (JPML) join them into a federal MDL. During the MDL process, the court treats each plaintiff as an individual and the plaintiffs retain their attorneys.
While the plaintiffs may allege harm from the same entity, the nature of the injuries may differ from person to person. As a result, each plaintiff will receive his or her own trial and the court will assign compensation based on the injuries and damages each individual sustains.
Stages of a Mass Tort Claim
Like class action lawsuits, mass tort claims often follow a streamlined legal process that begins with speaking with an attorney. While different factors may influence a case’s timeline, most MDLs follow the same basic procedure.
- JPML Motion: The attorneys representing the individual plaintiffs will file a motion requesting that the JPML consolidate the claims. The JPML may also consolidate the claims into an MDL without a motion. The panel will then determine if the individual lawsuits have enough in common to be an MDL.
- Lawsuit Filing: If the JPML decides that an MDL is appropriate, it will issue a transfer order combining the lawsuits into one mass tort. The cases will then transfer from their individual federal courts to a single federal district court and to a single judge who will preside over the pretrial process.
- Pretrial Proceedings: Attorneys for both sides will begin pretrial investigations and proceedings. The court will appoint steering committees for each side to oversee these activities. Both parties may file pre-trial motions and enter the discovery process, where they will collect and exchange evidence and depose witnesses.
- Bellwether Trials: Next, the plaintiffs’ attorneys will select a handful of individual lawsuits to act as bellwether trials. These claims will enter the courtroom, and the court will decide whether each plaintiff is eligible for compensation and the amount of each individual award. Both sides will use the outcome of the bellwether trials to determine their next steps.
- Negotiations and Trial: Depending on the outcome of the bellwether trials, the attorneys will either enter negotiations or trials. Attorneys may attempt to reach a global settlement with the defendant, but if the defendant refuses to settle or negotiate, each case will proceed to trial.
While class action and MDL claims may seem similar, they are appropriate for different types of cases. Both legal processes are highly complex and often involve different courts, multiple legal representatives, and hundreds of potential injured plaintiffs. If you believe you have a case that qualifies for mass litigation, speak to an attorney as soon as possible.