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What Is Multidistrict Litigation?

In the early 1960s, a massive amount of federal litigation was filed against General Electric due to a price-fixing scandal. The cases overwhelmed federal courts around the country. In an effort to guard against similar occurrences, Congress enacted the Multidistrict Litigation (“MDL”) statute in 1968.

The MDL statute provides a vehicle for federal courts to consolidate civil cases filed in multiple federal court districts into a single federal district court when the cases present “one or more common questions of fact.” The court receiving the consolidated cases oversees all pre-trial phases of the litigation, including discovery. If a transferred case does not resolve or is not dismissed during pre-trial proceedings, the case is sent back to the federal district court in which it was filed for trial.

The Judicial Panel

The Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation (“MDL Panel”) is charged with deciding which cases to place under MDL jurisdiction and choosing the particular district court to which the cases are sent. The MDL Panel consists of seven sitting federal court judges who are appointed by the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court.

Product Liability Cases and Multidistrict Litigation Jurisdiction

Under product liability law, manufacturers and sellers may be held liable for injuries caused by defective or unreasonably dangerous products. Often, the same product causes injuries to a large number of people. Since a “common question of fact” in these cases is determining whether a product is actually “defective,” it generally makes sense to combine the cases into a single pre-trial forum.

As an example, transvaginal mesh (“TV mesh”) products, which are primarily used to treat stress urinary incontinence and pelvic organ prolapse in women, have come under a lot of criticism due to serious health complications associated with the mesh. Thousands of lawsuits have been filed against various TV mesh manufacturers.  In order to promote efficient handling, many of these cases have been placed under MDL jurisdiction. Currently, there are thousands of pending MDL cases against TV mesh manufacturers Boston Scientific and Johnson & Johnson in the United States District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Multidistrict Litigation

One primary advantage of MDL is avoiding duplicative discovery. For example, in the TV mesh cases, the determination of whether the product is unreasonably dangerous will be based on expert opinion presented by both sides. Rather than questioning the expert thousands of times concerning the same product, MDL jurisdiction allows an expert witness to only have to give deposition testimony once. Other advantages include the prevention of inconsistent pretrial rulings and economy of judicial and litigant resources.

The primary disadvantage of MDL is after all of the pre-trial proceedings, the cases must be sent back to the jurisdictions in which they were originally filed for trial. This can be a problem because by the time a case reaches the trial stage, the MDL judge has typically become very familiar with the issues in the case and the involved parties. When the case is returned, the new judge must spend considerable time to develop an adequate understanding of the case before trial commences.