What is multidistrict litigation?

Multidistrict litigation, or MDL, refers to a special civil procedure used to handle the pre-trial steps for similar cases.   Cases that are consolidated under MDL usually have at least one common issue.  They usually have common parties, such as the same plaintiff or defendant, as well.

The multidistrict litigation process starts when several similar cases are filed in separate federal courts.  For instance, suppose that in seven different states, seven different people are injured when their toasters suddenly explode.  The seven different toasters were all made by ToasterCo., a company located in an eighth state.

Each injured plaintiff files a products liability case in federal court in her home state against ToasterCo., claiming that ToasterCo.’s negligence in creating obviously defective toasters caused their injuries and that therefore ToasterCo. ought to be held liable for damages.   So far, each of these seven cases is a run-of-the-mill products liability case.  However, since seven separate toasters caused injuries, ToasterCo. is now facing seven different court cases in seven different states, none of which are the state in which its principal place of business is located.

ToasterCo. has two choices: fight each case separately in the court in which it was filed, or apply to the Judicial Panel of Multidistrict Litigation (JPML) to have the cases consolidated in one court.  Using multidistrict litigation has several benefits for ToasterCo., including allowing the company to show up only in one court, instead of seven different courts scattered all over the country.  The plaintiffs may also support the idea of multidistrict litigation, especially if they all have basically the same complaint against ToasterCo.  For the plaintiffs, consolidating the cases gives them a better chance of a uniform verdict, instead of some plaintiffs winning and others losing depending on the whim of the court in which they filed their original cases.  If the plaintiffs all went through basically the same ordeal, they might prefer to have the cases heard by one court.

The JPML is responsible for deciding if cases should be consolidated into one multidistrict litigation case.  The JPML, which is made up of seven federal judges, deals with two primary issues:

1.  Are the cases similar enough that they can be consolidated effectively?

2.  Which judge or judges should be responsible for hearing the consolidated cases?

In the ToasterCo. example above, only seven cases are involved, making consolidation easier but also less important.  Multidistrict litigation was originally created in the 1960s to deal with much larger cases.  For instance, MDL No. 875, created in 1991 to manage cases related to asbestos injuries, has dealt with over 121,000 separate cases since its creation.  Most MDLs, however, deal with only a few dozen or a few hundred cases.

If the JPML approves the request to turn cases into multidistrict litigation, it assigns the cases an “MDL number” and chooses the district court and judge or judges that should hear them.  The cases may be assigned to a court that is not in the home state of either the plaintiffs or the defendants.  The court the cases are assigned to is known as the “transferee” court, while the court that originally had each case is known as the “transferor” court.

Assigning the cases to a single court allows both plaintiffs and defendants to save time, money, and energy by going through the discovery process and dealing with motions and other court issues only once, instead of doing these things separately in every court hearing a similar case.  However, even though the transferee court is responsible for overseeing discovery and similar issues, each case goes back to its original transferor court for trial – even if the parties would rather the case be heard by the transferee court.

One particularly difficult situation arises when a case dealing with state law is filed in federal court under diversity jurisdiction.  These cases are managed by a rule known as the Erie doctrine.  When combined with multidistrict litigation issues, these cases can quickly develop into multi-layered, highly complex issues of law – cases that most plaintiffs and defendants are not equipped to handle without the help of an experienced attorney.


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