The word “bellwether” refers to something that indicates or predicts trends or tendencies or is otherwise at the lead or forefront.

Bellwether trials are individual lawsuits hand-picked to be heard first, ahead of a “pack” of similar lawsuits grouped together in what’s known as multidistrict litigation. MDLs consolidate related cases before one federal judge in order to reduce costs and promote efficiency in legal proceedings.

However, no judge can hear hundreds or thousands of cases at once. In order to test the strength of the lawsuits, a handful of bellwether trials will be held. The number of bellwether trials is up to the judge. In a very complex MDL, more bellwether trials may be scheduled than in a more straightforward situation. Cases selected for bellwether trials are often the strongest and most fully developed.

During a bellwether trial, both sides see how the judge interprets applicable laws, who the jury sides with, and the kind of compensation juries award. While the results of any given bellwether are not binding for the remaining lawsuits, they are a good indicator — a “bellwether” — of how things are trending. 

Most MDLs end in settlement simply because of the logistical challenges of hearing hundreds or thousands of cases individually. Bellwether trials can set the tone for settlement negotiations, making them a good barometer of how much negotiating power each side may have. 

Some of the most notable bellwether trials in recent years have been those alleging that Roundup (glyphosate), an herbicide made by Bayer subsidiary Monsanto, causes cancer. In the first two bellwether trials, juries awarded $289 million to school groundskeeper Dewayne “Lee” Johnson and $80 million to Edwin Hardeman.

In February, Bayer reached a $2 billion agreement to settle future legal claims over Roundup, Reuters reported. In April 2020 Bayer allegedly backed out of a $10 billion settlement with law firms representing more than 45,000 plaintiffs. Two months later Bayer reached a $6.9 billion settlement resolving most of the more than 100,000 U.S. lawsuits pending at the time.