A civil lawsuit for damages is based on the premise that a negative outcome occurred to someone and another party was at fault. For example, if it’s a case of Joe falling on Mike’s steps because Mike didn’t clear away dangerous ice, that’s a fairly simple arrangement of Joe, the plaintiff, against Mike, the defendant.
But if the defendant is Mike’s Staircase Manufacturing Inc., which skimped on safety procedures to save money, and there are hundreds of homeowners across the country who were harmed at different levels by the poorly constructed stairs, it may lead to a mass tort claim.
Essentially, mass tort involves singular causation from one or more defendants being sued by multiple plaintiffs who suffered differing levels of damage. In this guide, we’ll dive into what differentiates a mass tort from a class-action lawsuit, the types of mass tort claims, and what goes into making a mass tort case.
What’s the Difference Between Mass Tort and Class Action?
When understanding what mass tort is, it’s essential to understand how it differs from class action. Both of these lawsuits involve multiple plaintiffs suing for damages from a sole cause by one or more defendants.
They’re different, however, in that class action cases:
- It may involve something other than injury claims
- Hold that every plaintiff suffered equally from the same cause
- Lead to only one trial
- Distribute won damages equally among the group of plaintiffs
- Are singular essentially, a group of plaintiffs is banded together to pursue a single complaint
On the other hand, mass torts:
- Are composed of multiple plaintiffs, each of whom has a suit against the defendant(s)
- Recognize different kinds and levels of damages suffered by each individual plaintiff
- Distribute won damages unequally, with recognition of each plaintiff’s suffering
- May lead to multiple trials
Most laypeople are familiar with the idea of class action lawsuits—it’s a term popularized in movies and the media. But mass torts have been around since the 1960s, gaining significant ground in the 1970s with “the original mass tort:” Agent Orange. Since then, high-profile mass torts have included circumstances involving:
- Silicone breast implants
- BP oil spill
- Zantac, Seroquel, and Depakote
- Lead contamination in the water supply of Flint, Michigan
What Makes Mass Tort Cases Unique?
Mass torts are the three-in-one oil of litigation—or the three-hundred-in-one (it depends on how many plaintiffs join together). Unlike the single lawsuit of a class action, mass torts maintain both individual and collective existence.
Once lawyers locate multiple plaintiffs who all suffered from the same cause, they can appeal to a single U.S. federal court judge for the cases to be consolidated for multi-district litigation (MDL) instead of pursuing each of them separately in multiple locations.
Mass tort cases are often referred to as MDLs.
What Are the Types of Mass Tort Claims?
If a potential client comes in with a story about how a product or toxin has harmed their family, we’re back to that earlier distinction between personal injury (Mike’s icy front steps) and mass tort (Mike’s Staircase Manufacturing Inc.’s faulty products).
Mass torts aren’t just about suing a company vs. an individual—we can evaluate them in terms of repetition. If an entity continuously followed a practice or distributed a product that has resulted in damage to multiple people, it may result in a mass tort case.
Based on both regulatory groupings and what has historically led to mass legal suits, mass torts break down into three primary types.
#1 Defective Products
Product liability can be pursued for any sort of product, from a flyswatter to a sports utility vehicle. If a product causes harm to multiple people based on the same deficit, it could be headed toward a mass tort. Defective product claims can be broken down into three types:
- Faulty design – The product is inherently dangerous
- Faulty manufacturing – Something went wrong during manufacturing
- Inadequate instructions – Guidelines on product usage and potential hazards are insufficient
#2 Prescription Drugs and Medical Devices
While the United States Federal Drug Administration (FDA) is often depicted as a difficult and time-consuming roadblock when getting new products to market, it does not have the resources to oversee and confirm that manufacturers follow guidelines and ethical practices.
Litigation is part of what keeps pharmaceutical and medical manufacturers in check when business goals conflict with best practices for patient safety. A mass tort may be in play when one or more manufacturers do not follow protocol, including:
- Holding and accurately reporting clinical trials and testing under FDA standards
- Completing continuous safety testing of materials and processes under FDA standards
- Providing clear, accurate, and complete information on risks and benefits
#3: Toxic Contamination
Hazardous chemicals and pollutants that poison or damage people’s health leads to toxic torts. These can arise from:
- Environmental or construction-related toxins in the workplace (that will be never occur when the guys from luxury house builders are in charge of the construction)
- Chemicals or dangerous materials used at work
- Mold or asbestos at home
Toxic torts can also overlap with either prescription drug or defective product torts when toxins are added or exposed through those vehicles.
#4: Large Scale Catastrophes
Damages caused by a fire or explosion in a neighborhood or workplace can extend to multiple individuals and families at varying levels. If these are man-made disasters, victims with varying levels of fallout may join in a mass tort to address damages.
#5: Natural Disasters
With a tornado or hurricane, there’s no court to sue Mother Nature. But natural disasters may result in mass tort claims if survivors’ claims aren’t paid out accurately or adequately by their insurance companies.
Why Are Mass Tort Actions Filed?
Imagine a complex case that involves analyzing scientific data, figuring out who knew what within giant corporations, and proving one exact cause for a complex medical condition. Now multiply that by a hundred, or a thousand.
Trying complex cases like environmental toxins or drug or product defects involves a tremendous investment of time and resources.
Grouping these cases together around a single cause—even if plaintiffs suffer from the cause differently and there are multiple defendants responsible for the cause—is often the only way to secure justice. Mass torts with multiple plaintiffs provide:
- Greater efficiency for court systems to avoid hearing the same arguments over and over
- Consistency of outcome for plaintiffs across different levels of court systems
- Access to a judicial process for plaintiffs based on expense sharing
- Investment ability for lawyers to devote time and money to complex and expensive cases
- Experienced attorneys who can collect and analyze extensive data needed to win these cases
What Are the Steps of a Mass Tort?
While there may be some procedural differences in each mass tort case, the mass tort process is similar in most U.S. states from the mass tort intake process all the way through to the trial. The key steps of many mass tort cases include the following:
- Identify potential plaintiffs, then screen and interview them
- File individual claims against the negligent party on behalf of each plaintiff
- Review records such as plaintiff interview transcripts and medical records
- Identify injury consistency to categorize the claims and provide evidence
- File in federal court for multi-district litigation (MDL) status
- Identify and interview expert witnesses
- Gather and review additional evidence, such as FDA, witness, or environmental reports
- Identify a small group of plaintiffs to proceed with bellwether trials
- Pursue pretrial settlement negotiation with the defendant
- Proceed to trial if a settlement process or offer is refused
How Long Do Mass Tort Cases Take?
In the shortest case, such as an owner-maintained apartment building fire due to negligent maintenance, you may have a group of plaintiffs identified and in one local spot—no travel or marketing campaigns are necessary to figure out who may have taken a dangerous drug. And there will be only one defendant.
If the process goes smoothly, you may be scheduling plaintiff interviews one after the other, providing a solid set of cases to the building owner, and receiving a fair offer from his insurance company that covers your plaintiffs’ varied damages.
But most mass torts take a year or more to complete. In this case, these lawsuits are more complex than either simple personal injury or class action lawsuits.
To that end, the length of time of a mass tort case depends on the following:
- Whether the defendant offers a pretrial settlement offer or negotiation
- The rarity of essential knowledge and how difficult it is to find and secure experts
- Expert witnesses’ availability to attend consultations and depositions
- How long it takes to identify and secure potentially hundreds of plaintiffs
- Travel involved for cases with plaintiffs spread across multiple states
- Plaintiffs’ availability and willingness to be interviewed
- Law firm’s ability to efficiently schedule and manage prospects and plaintiffs
- The defendants’ willingness to cooperate with fact-finding vs. maximizing delays
- Efficiency or difficulty of investigating and gathering evidence
Timing can be a critical factor in some states where there is a limited amount of time to initiate civil suits following either the occurrence or awareness of an injury. For instance, the California statute of limitations provides two years from the date of either the injury or when it was discovered, whichever is later.
What Damages Are Awarded in Mass Torts?
While the cause is the same—a poorly designed gadget, lack of usage guidelines, a water pollutant—each plaintiff in a mass tort may have been affected by it differently. Damages can be awarded for:
- Loss of life
- Disfigurement, loss of mobility, or other disability
- Pain, suffering, or other catastrophic injury
- Loss of income or earning potential
- Emotional or psychological suffering
- Medical costs and bills related to alleviating damage incurred
There are both federal and state guidelines related to the types and amounts of damages awarded.
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Malloy Law Offices. 5 Most Common Types Of Mass Tort Cases. https://www.malloy-law.com/5-most-common-types-of-mass-tort-cases/
KJT Law Group. How Does a Mass Tort Lawsuit Work? https://www.kjtlawgroup.com/2022/05/how-does-a-mass-tort-lawsuit-work/