What is an MDL?
MDL stands for Multidistrict Litigation. It is a form of legal proceeding that was created to help federal courts efficiently manage multiple related cases filed in different parts of the country. MDLs are created by the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation, or JPML.
How the JPML Works:
The JPML is a panel of seven federal appellate and district court judges all from different circuits. The panel is assigned the specific task of deciding whether lawsuits filed in different courts are similar enough to go through the preliminary steps of civil litigation together. If the JPML decides that multiple lawsuits share “questions of fact,” the panel can transfer the cases to a single court for coordinated pretrial proceedings.
The common “questions of fact” in most pharmaceutical lawsuits are:
- Whether there is a scientific link between the drug and the injury; and
- Whether the pharmaceutical manufacturer knew of the link and failed to warn doctors and patients.
An MDL is not a class action where one lawsuit has multiple plaintiffs and everyone in a class is treated the same. In an MDL, each plaintiff can keep their own lawsuit and damages can be determined for each individual.
MDL Organization for Plaintiffs:
One of the first things that an MDL court does is appoint a leadership structure for the plaintiffs. This is typically called the “Plaintiffs’ Steering Committee” or PSC. The PSC is made up of a small group of lawyers – typically, who represent different or multiple plaintiffs. The PSC’s role in the litigation is to effectively and efficiently represent the common interests of all MDL plaintiffs.
One of the first stages of civil litigation is discovery. Discovery is when both sides of a lawsuit gather facts and develop evidence. In an MDL involving a prescription drug, this involves gathering the documents and taking depositions of the employees of the pharmaceutical company.
A deposition is when a person is questioned under oath about their knowledge related to the matters in a lawsuit. In an MDL, the Plaintiffs can conduct a deposition of a company employee and that deposition can be used in every individual case, rather than deposing that person multiple times. The same logic holds for obtaining documents and expert medical testimony as well.
Normally, in a complex pharmaceutical case, there are millions of pages of documents that are produced by the drug manufacturer. All of these documents must be reviewed to determine if they are relevant or if they will help the plaintiffs prove their case. In an MDL setting, members of the PSC and other plaintiff law firms band together to review these documents collectively. This saves an enormous amount of time that would typically be spent by each plaintiff’s lawyer who had a case.
Test Cases or Bellwether Trials:
Once the discovery phase is finished, the MDL court can decide to select one or more cases as “bellwether trials.” These cases are the first to proceed to trial. Bellwether trials offer a snapshot or preview of how remaining similar cases may end up. The trials also test the strength of the evidence, witness, and expert testimony and arguments before an actual jury. After the bellwether trials, the remaining cases either settle or they are transferred to their home states to await their individual trial.
By Stephen R. Hunt, Jr, Attorney