What is Multi-District Litigation in Federal Court and How Does it Impact My Product Liability Case?


You had problems with a defective drug or medical device and you and your lawyer filed a lawsuit in federal court near where you live. But, then you get the news that the case was being put into something called Multi-District Litigation (MDL) and now a judge in some distant city is dealing with the case, and hundreds of other cases as well. What’s happening and what does it mean for your case?

MDL is a tool the court system uses to manage complex cases. It was designed to make courts more efficient. When there are hundreds or thousands of lawsuits all across the country, and the general facts and issues of law are similar, a panel called the Judicial Panel on Multi-District Litigation, can decide to consolidate all of the cases into MDL and transfer them to a single court to deal with all of the pre-trial process. MDL is not the same as a class-action lawsuit.

The Pre-Trial Process

This pre-trial process includes discovery, where both sides can ask for documents, depositions, and any number of other things to help uncover the facts before a case goes to trial. Most MDL judges also try to encourage the sides to settle the cases. One thing the new MDL court cannot do is conduct a trial. If a case doesn’t settle, then the case will often be transferred back to the original court where it was filed and it will proceed to trial. Each case still exists as an individual case. The MDL court can make rulings that apply to all of the cases on common issues like deadlines for discovery, or what types of documents are appropriate to ask for and it can make decisions for individual cases such as unique state law issues that will not apply to cases from different states.

What MDL Means to Your Case

In your situation having your case put into MDL doesn’t change the basics. Your lawyer can continue to represent you. But, instead of having a local judge oversee the pretrial process, you have a judge that may be located across the country from you. You still have a right to turn down any settlement offer from the defendants. You also have the right to review all of the discovery that the defendants produce. Most importantly you still have a right to get your day in court where a judge and jury can hear about the specifics of your case.

Having your case in MDL also means that if your case is transferred back to your home court, the judge will have to catch-up on everything that happened while the case was away at MDL. This means it may take longer for the trial to be scheduled than normal. While most lawyers and plaintiffs would prefer to have their cases stay with the local court, getting put into MDL is out of the control of the local judge and your attorney.

MDL is often seen as working to the advantage of corporations who would otherwise have to defend cases all over the country and open themselves up to the possibility of contradictory statements given by their own employees in many different courts. But, it also gives plaintiffs a chance to compare notes and strategize together in a way that would not be possible if all the cases existed on their own.

Having a case suddenly transferred can be stressful, but an experienced products liability lawyer will understand how to handle MDL and to use it to your best advantage.