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Class-Action Lawsuits vs. Multidistrict Litigation (MDL)


Class-action lawsuits provide a blanket settlement for all members, while multidistrict litigation cases are grouped together but resolved individually.

Court systems use mass torts to manage large numbers of lawsuits to increase efficiency and decrease the costs of litigation. A tort is an action that causes harm to someone but is not a crime. A mass tort is an action that causes harm to a large number of people. Civil courts decide disputes over compensation for damages from torts and mass torts.

Courts have different tools for managing mass torts, including class-action lawsuits and multidistrict litigation (MDL). These procedural tools help courts manage cases more efficiently. They can also help injured consumers obtain compensation more quickly.

Class-action lawsuits form when individuals harmed by a drug or device combine cases into a single lawsuit. Multidistrict litigation cases occur when a panel transfers individual cases to a single court, but the cases are not combined into a single lawsuit.

Too often, large numbers of consumers suffer similar injuries from the same defective drug or device. Such widespread injuries often result in hundreds or thousands of civil lawsuits against the drug manufacturer and marketers in both federal and state courts. Litigation is often a drawn-out but necessary battle to get pharmaceutical companies to compensate consumers for their injuries.

Mass torts can make the legal process easier for all parties involved. Class-action lawsuits and multidistrict litigation share some common characteristics. Both involve transferring several similar cases involving one or multiple questions of fact to a single court. However, there are many differences.

Class-Action Lawsuits

A class-action lawsuit involves similar claims by a group of people injured by one or more common defendants. Rather than go it alone, the plaintiffs choose to join others in a class action.

An individual or small group of plaintiffs acts as a leader for a larger group of injured people. After filing a complaint in state or federal court, the lead plaintiffs – also called class representatives – ask the court to certify the lawsuit as a class action.

In deciding whether to certify a class action, the court considers whether:
There are enough claims to warrant resolving them in a single lawsuit.
There are common facts or legal questions.
The lead plaintiffs’ claims are typical for the class.
The named plaintiffs fairly represent the interests of the class.

A court is not required to certify a class or approve a settlement. Even if the plaintiffs and defendants are in agreement, the court can refuse to certify a class or reject a settlement if it doesn’t adequately resolve or compensate class members’ claims.

Class actions have advantages for both claimants and defendants. In addition to simplifying the process of handling a large number of cases, class action lawsuits protect the interests of absent plaintiffs, allow the distribution of litigation costs among a large number of plaintiffs and save resources for all parties involved.

Class-action lawsuits can end in settlements for all members before going to trial. In that case, both plaintiffs and defendants have the potential to leverage a settlement without litigating claims individually.

If the parties reach a settlement, their attorneys develop a plan for notifying potential class members and settling claims. Once the settlement is approved by the court, potential class members are notified of their opportunity to submit a claim for a percentage of the settlement if they meet eligibility requirements. Requirements often include the type of injury sustained and the time period in which the injury was sustained.


If you were harmed by a dangerous drug or a defective medical device, you may have legal options.

However, plaintiffs are not required to participate in class action lawsuits even if they meet all of the criteria. Those who do participate lose their right to file an individual lawsuit about the tort in the future, regardless of the outcome of the case. Those who choose not to participate keep their right to file an individual lawsuit and may have more input into a possible settlement.

It’s always best to speak to an attorney about the pros and cons of class actions and your individual circumstances before deciding whether a class action is a good option for you. Many product liability attorneys offer free consultations.

Notable Class Actions
Product(s) Companies Outcome
Dalkon Shield IUD A.H. Robins Multiple attempts to certify a class failed in both state and federal court before a class was certified in 1986.
By then, A.H. Robins was in bankruptcy proceedings.
A bankruptcy trust was eventually established and paid nearly $3 billion to more than 200,000 claimants during the 1990s.
Silicone Gel Breast Implants Dow Corning Corp.; Baxter Healthcare;
Bristol-Meyers Squibb/MEC; others
$4.225 billion settlement for more than 25,000 injured claimants
(approved in 1994)
Fen-Phen American Home Products $3.75 billion settlement for more than 200,000 claimants
(approved in 2000)
Vioxx Merck & Co. $220 million settlement to issue refunds to Missouri consumers (agreement reached in 2012, final court approval pending)

Multidistrict Litigation (MDL)

When dangerous drug and medical devices harm large numbers of people, personal injury claims can clog court dockets across the nation. In order to increase efficiency by allowing a single judge to oversee similar cases, a panel can consolidate the cases in a process called multidistrict litigation (MDL).

In the federal system, the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation decides when to transfer cases to an MDL. It usually occurs when there are large numbers of cases against common defendants and the courts expect more plaintiffs to file lawsuits. At the state level, a similar body or a state supreme court can decide to consolidate similar cases.

A single judge oversees and administers cases in an MDL. This usually involves grouping cases with common factual or legal issues together for discovery, pre-trial hearings, trial scheduling and settlement conferences. This allows the court to address common issues that affect many cases at once.

MDL is not the same as class action, although an MDL can lead to a class-action lawsuit.

A class action is a single lawsuit with several similar claimants. MDL cases remain separate lawsuits. MDL cases are not consolidated for a common outcome in the same way that class-action members share in the same settlement or verdict. However, companies may choose to settle multiple MDL cases based on early trial results.

Several drugs and medical devices are the subject of pending MDLs, including:
Actos Benicar
Lipitor Pradaxa
Testosterone supplements Xarelto
Yaz/Yasmin/Ocella IVC filters
NuvaRing Transvaginal mesh
Depuy ASR hip implants Zimmer NexGen Flex knee implants

If you or a loved one has been injured by these or other products, a drug or device attorney can provide more information about pending class actions or MDLs. If the product responsible for your injuries is not currently the subject of a class action or MDL, you may still be eligible to file a legal claim.