Multidistrict Litigation, or MDL, is the consolidation of cases that involve common questions of fact. The cases are centralized in one court, and one judge oversees all pretrial discovery (taking of depositions and exchange of documents and information).

How is an MDL created?

Seven federal judges serve on the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation, known as the JPML. The judges determine whether cases filed in federal courts around the United States involve common questions of fact. If so, the JPML will order the cases to be consolidated. They also decide which judge will oversee the cases.

What are the benefits?

MDLs prevent the same discovery from taking place in courts all over the United States. They also prevent inconsistent rulings by different judges. The creation of an MDL is very common and speeds up the litigation. It also saves the parties time and resources.

What happens after discovery is over?

Once pretrial discovery is complete, the MDL judge will usually allow a handful of cases to proceed to trial. These trials are known as bellwether trials. They are thought to be representative of other cases in the MDL and help the parties understand how future trials may turn out. They may urge the parties towards settlement negotiations. If not, cases will be transferred to the federal court where they were originally filed, or could have been filed, for further proceedings.

Is an MDL the same as a class action?

No. An MDL is much different than a class action. A class action is one case with many plaintiffs. Only one plaintiff is named and that plaintiff acts on behalf of all other plaintiffs in the lawsuit. If a class action settles, money is distributed evenly among all plaintiffs.

In an MDL, each plaintiff has its own individual case. Each case is handled on an individual basis. The strengths and weaknesses of every case are separately evaluated.

What is an example of an MDL?

An example of an MDL is MDL 2873, In Re: Aqueous Film-Forming Foams (AFFF) Products Liability Litigation. Three years ago, several plaintiffs with AFFF cases pending around the country filed motions to consolidate the cases. The JPML conducted a hearing and found that the cases all involve the use of AFFF at airports, military bases and industrial sites which contaminated groundwater and cause serious injury.

Common issues include the toxicity of the AFFF and its effect on human health. They also include what defendants knew about the dangers of AFFF and if they tried to hide the dangers. The cases named the same group of defendants and defendants will all assert the same defenses. The JPML found that the parties will benefit from an MDL. The cases are now pending in federal court in South Carolina before Judge Richard Gergel.

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