Multidistrict Litigation: The Basics

Also known as an MDL, multidistrict litigation is a procedure where federal civil (noncriminal) lawsuits that deal with similar issues are transferred to a single district court, where they are overseen by a single district judge. 

There are 94 U.S. District Courts, with at least one in every state and in the District of Columbia. Each court hears cases related to federal laws or interstate issues with more than $75,000 in damages. 

By consolidating cases in one place, MDLs make lawsuits more manageable for both sides — claimants and defendants — and promote overall efficiency in the courts by:

  • Reducing duplicate legal activities such as pretrial investigations
  • Lowering costs for the courts, claimants and defendants 
  • Avoiding potential backlogs of cases and unreasonably long wait times for claimants

In recent years, MDLs have been used for hernia mesh claims, asbestos-mesothelioma claims, and Roundup-related cancer lawsuits. New MDLs are moving forward related to Elmiron bladder medication and Paragard IUD lawsuits. 

According to Cornell Law School's Legal Information Institute, the choice of a judicial district can influence the outcome. Some districts are more friendly toward plaintiffs (those filing the lawsuit), while others are more friendly toward defendants.

In MDLs each plaintiff is individually named. In class actions lawsuits, which are another type of mass tort, one plaintiff represents an entire group of "class" of plaintiffs who are not individually named.

Multidistrict Litigation: The Process

The United States Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation, or MDL Panel, consists of seven federal judges who review MDL certification requests and decide whether and where to consolidate the lawsuits.

Some factors the panel might consider:

  • Whether the defendant (the accused) is the same for all lawsuits
  • Whether the individual lawsuits involve a similar type of injury 
  • Whether the alleged injuries all happened within the same time frame
  • The qualifications of potential judges: overall experience level and familiarity with the issues

Either side may argue for the lawsuits to go to a particular district. However, that decision ultimately rests with the MDL Panel, which possesses broad authority to certify or deny MDLs for any legally justifiable reason.

If the panel decides that the lawsuits warrant MDL certification, the cases move forward in the chosen district. If the panel decides against an MDL, the cases go back to their original filing locations and are heard individually. 

MDL’s May Give Claimants an Advantage

The more claimants are part of an MDL, the easier it is to argue that the alleged injury is the result of a drug or device, for instance, rather than a one-off coincidence.

Indeed, corporate defendants and their allies will argue that MDLs unfairly bias juries in the claimants’ favor — that hundreds or thousands of claimants banding together give the impression that a defendant is liable before the trial even begins. 

Another concern of defendants is that the publicity some MDLs generate may lead more people to file lawsuits than would have otherwise, artificially inflating the size of the MDL.