Photo of Bexis

Over 11 years ago the blog published a post called “Anatomy of a Mass Tort,” which endeavored to explain the life cycle of this type of litigation.  We’ve decided to revisit and update that post, given the changes that have taken place over the intervening years.

And change it has.   Our original post mentioned class actions several times. It didn’t mention personal jurisdiction, multi-plaintiff complaints, third-party litigation funding, or plaintiff fact sheets.

So here is anatomy of a mass tort 2.0.


Today, we’re stepping back.  Instead of analyzing specific doctrines or new cases, we’re going to give you a run down of the whole enchilada:  a mass tort, start to finish.

With a mass tort, the entire process can be described without ever typing these words:  “the product was defective” or “someone was hurt.”  Unfortunately, those words have become unnecessary to describe the anatomy of a mass tort.

A mass tort hardly needs a trigger anymore.  At bottom, all that’s necessary is a drug or device with a decent sized market and something to attract the other side’s lawyers.  Look, for example, at the best-selling drugs of 2007, when we first wrote the post. They include Lipitor, Nexium, Plavix, Seroquel, and more.  Of the top 20, just looking at the names, 15 of them resulted in easily recognizable mass torts.  Unless you’re inclined to believe that the FDA erroneously approves drugs three quarters of the time, then it’s pretty clear that all that’s really essential to a mass tort is “mass.”

Still there is usually some sort of trigger.  A number of events can set off the avalanche.

First, the most significant would be adverse regulatory action – a mandatory recall or a label change adding a boxed warning or a significant new risk.  Mass torts commonly follow in the wake of regulatory action; the idea that they somehow induce regulatory action is plaintiff-side propaganda 95% of the time.

Second, even in the absence of regulatory action, plaintiffs try to stir up trouble.  Thus, they try to generate bad press – something nasty said on 60 Minutes, or a similar program will rev up the clanking machinery of the litigation industry.  In Bone Screw it was David Kessler’s hysterical response on “20/20” to off-label, yet standard of care, spinal surgery.

Third, short of that, a voluntary recall, even though no government agency demanded it, whereby a manufacturer took its product off the market, has also led to mass tort action.  That was one of the things that happened with Vioxx.

Fourth, a significant verdict in what was once a one-off case can provide the necessary spark − nothing catches the eye of the plaintiff’s’ bar like big money.

Fifth, although it may be as much of an excuse as a true cause, a critical article in the scientific literature can prompt the other side to do its thing. That’s what happened with hormone therapy – a much anticipated scientific article didn’t show the expected advantages, but rather a moderate increased risk (less than double) as to a single (the highest) age group that wasn’t even the principal target population for that product.  In the mass-tort frenzy that followed, all these distinctions got lost in the shuffle. Since tort “market” was large, and the risk relatively common, it was off to the races and damn the details.

Finally, these days the trigger doesn’t even have to involve the product.  An adverse event befalling another product in the same group of drugs or devices can lead to copycat mass tort litigation against the entire group.  Plaintiffs are currently suing over every second generation anticoagulant, every IVC filter, and every conceivable kind of surgical mesh. Think Vioxx and Cox II analgesics, or Baycol and statins, or AcroMed’s pedicle screw device, with litigation spreading to every other device on the market that used similar bone screws.  Close used to count only in horse shoes, hand grenades, and H-bombs − you can add mass torts to that list, particularly if you can find a synonym beginning with “h.”  (We can think of one easily enough, but the Blog, unlike ATRA, isn’t allowed to use it.)

How much (if any) of this is really good policy?  We have to think that the litigenic effects of FDA regulatory action, and of all recalls, mandatory or voluntary, cannot help but to deter actions that proper public health policy should encourage.  We’re afraid that fear of litigation may deter companies from voluntarily undertaking (or acquiescing in a regulatory agency’s request for) a product recall or a label change.  That doesn’t mean we agree with it, though, since delay in such situations usually makes things worse in the end.

Back when product liability was shiny and new, strict liability was justified because it supposedly would causes companies to internalize risks and thereby reduce those risks. These days fear of mass tort litigation can also influence corporate decision-making, in ways that are harmful to the public.

But we digress.  Back to our anatomy lesson.

Regardless of what is the triggering event, the creation of the mass tort itself follows – almost entirely extra-legally.


Since the courts discovered that lawyers have a constitutional right to use advertisements to solicit clients, they have done so – with a frequency that would no doubt have shocked the Founding Fathers.  Anybody who watches TV knows what we’re talking about.

And it’s not just lawyers, either.  Media specialists and third-party litigation funders also combine to run (with apologies to Marlowe) the race that launched 100,000 TV (and internet) ads.  Anyone who responds – and many do – becomes “inventory,” their claims available for sale in bulk to enterprising lawyers hoping to cash in on the next mass tort.

Thus, within hours after the triggering event, “law firm” websites will invite product users to sign on as potential clients.  Similar solicits in other forms of media follow.

This early stage is usually the point of no return.  The lawyers involved will freely buy, sell, and trade the would-be clients that have signed up – to the point where those clients often don’t know who their lawyers actually are.  But once they have clients, no matter how attenuated the relationship, lawyers cannot ethically let them go.  Regardless of the facts, the mass-tort litigation process takes on a life of its own.

So, counsel who specialize in representing plaintiffs in mass torts strike first in their favorite venues.  Some of these are in state court.  There, they try to keep their chosen courts by filing multi-plaintiff complaints – in numbers less than 100 to avoid a federal statute called “CAFA” – with people from all over the country, but at least one in the home state of at least one defendant to prevent defendants from being able to take the cases to federal court.

The only thing the plaintiffs in these massive complaints have in common is that they claim some injury from the same product (although sometimes they sue multiple manufacturers of the same kind of product).  The only thing the complaint tells the defendant about the plaintiffs is their state of residence.  Try filing an adverse event report (which the FDA requires for every litigation complaint no matter how weak) with that.

Defendants counter with “snap” removals.  If the only thing preventing removal of a case to federal court is a defendant from the place where the plaintiff chose to file suit, then removal before service is a good idea for defendants.  Monitoring the state-court dockets and taking action before the plaintiff gets around to serving that defendant gets such cases to federal court. The statute allows it, and so do a lot of courts.

Other plaintiffs want to be in federal court so they can create multi-district (“MDL”) litigation.  Even in federal court – heck, especially in federal court – the race is also on.  The big money in MDL litigation, for those lawyers who want to work, is to be on the Plaintiffs’ Steering Committee.  That requires knowledge of the obscure ins and outs of MDL procedure, but it also requires a client base.  So candidates for the steering committee work in league with the media solicitors to scoop up lots of inventory to file in federal courts that they think would make a good home for an MDL proceeding.  These are usually the most competent plaintiffs’ lawyers. They’re itching to do some work, to try some cases, and to maintain or to establish their reputations in the field.

The final decision on where an MDL is located rests with a committee of judges, and competing lawyers will file lots of cases in various places (usually their home federal courts).  Defendants also have some say, and often prefer to be where their principal place of business is located.  Where an MDL is located can be important for other reasons besides the composition of the plaintiffs’ steering committee.  Federal issues, like preemption, differ between the circuits, and in MDLs the law of the circuit where the MDL is located will apply.

At this point, our original post mentioned class actions.  They’re really not many of them in mass torts anymore – practically none in cases alleging personal injury.  Class actions still get filed in mass torts, mostly on behalf of insurance or government programs that supply drugs, but as our cheat sheets show, they are rarely certified and nowadays are the “tail” rather than the “dog” in mass torts.

These MDL specialist plaintiffs’ lawyers are very good at what they do, but because the written rules don’t apply, and the rules that do are esoteric and hidden, it’s mostly the same repeat players over and over again. That the resulting steering committees tend to be less diverse than the current crop of White House interns is an unfortunate consequence of the overall lack of rules and reliance on a good old boys network rather than the stringent competition conducted by our clients  Our clients actually care about this kind of thing, and unlike the inventory on the other side, our clients get to choose their lawyers, rather than vice versa.

But we digress again.

Most plaintiffs’ lawyers in mass torts, however, do not seek leadership positions, because that would require, well, work.  It’s far easier to collect some inventory from the advertisers, throw them in the judicial hopper, do nothing, watch how the litigation plays out, and then spring into action only after the parties announce a global settlement.  No muss; no fuss; just big bucks.

MDLs are perfect for these lawyers.  The federal rules largely don’t apply – at least to plaintiffs.  Defendants are precluded from challenging the adequacy of complaints that don’t contain basic information like whether the plaintiff actually used the product at issue or had the injury that is the subject of the MDL.  Defendants aren’t allowed to take so-called “case specific” discovery or to file “case-specific” motions.  With the rules becoming figments of the imagination, at most defendants get “fact sheets,” most of which contain incomplete or even downright false information.

So while defendants are spending tens of millions of dollars complying with the plaintiffs’ massive discovery (a mass tort largely eliminates “proportionality” from discovery directed at our clients), if they want any discovery at all from plaintiffs – they have to pay for that, too.  Defendants have to pay to check the accuracy of the fact sheets, and to collect the plaintiffs’ medical records.  Since this is information that, in non-mass-tort cases, plaintiffs would pay for in responding to discovery, it’s tailor-made for those plaintiffs’ attorneys who want a free ride until settlement.

And that’s just the core litigation.  Mass torts also spawn peripheral litigation. The target company (or industry) will probably be enmeshed in securities litigation, with shareholders seeking “stock drop” damages and alleging that the company knew all about what the product liability plaintiffs are suing over, but kept it hidden from investors.  If the company has insurance, the insurers will bail and seek to deny coverage.  State attorneys general, or even the federal government, might sue.  There could even be the odd False Claims Act case, or two.

It’s the American legal system in all its glory.  Mass torts are essentially a lawyer’s full employment act.  Mass torts are even counter-cyclical – they tend to rise when the economy doesn’t; when more people need money and more investors have underinvested funds lying around to underwrite litigation.

In any event, the mass tort proceeds.  Plaintiffs petition the MDL Panel to create a coordinated proceeding.  That gets sent somewhere, with or without the defendant’s acquiescence.  A significant number of MDL judges are also repeat players.  We’re sure that at least some of them enjoy the power and the notoriety – in addition to the relatively interesting work.

Non-MDL actions also proceed, to the extent that plaintiffs who want to be in state court are successful in staying there.  Personal jurisdiction developments are making this harder, as federal courts are less likely to tolerate the multi-plaintiff complaint jurisdictional dodge.  Several states are known for coordinated state-court mass tort proceedings, such as California, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Missouri, and in some types of mass torts, New York, and Florida.

In the MDL proceeding, the target defendants search for a silver-bullet defense – one that can get rid of thousands of cases at once.  These are mostly preemption and Daubert expert witness exclusion, although occasionally other issues, such as warning adequacy as a matter of law, innovator liability, or even the statute of limitations, can serve that function in particular mass torts.  Preemption bars plaintiffs from recovering because federal law says “no.” It doesn’t matter how strong or weak a plaintiff’s state-law tort claim is on the merits.  A win on the (general causation) Daubert ground means that plaintiffs are barred from recovery because no legitimate scientific evidence links the defendant’s product to the plaintiffs’ alleged injury.  These are the kind of rulings that, when they happen, often wind up on our annual “best of” list.

In all-too-many mass torts, the defendant loses on the wholesale level, preemption doesn’t apply and at least one plaintiff-side causation expert gets through Daubert.  So the litigation continues.  The next bump comes just before the two-year mark. That is the statute of limitations for product liability claims in most states.  Plaintiffs’ lawyers who have been holding back cases, trying to determine whether the federal or state litigation will provide them the most recovery with the least work, have to fish or cut bait. If they don’t file complaints then, well, the strongest legal malpractice claims involve blown statutes of limitations.  So at two years, the rest of the inventory shows up.

At the two-year point defendants at last have a pretty good idea of the magnitude of the mass tort.  And, with most new cases time-barred, defendants can begin to think about what a global settlement might look like, now that news of settlement negotiations won’t just spark another round of advertising and still more litigation.  Defendants’ depressed stock prices may start to rebound.

But even now the tricks continue.  Litigation shifts to states with longer statutes of limitations, more lenient discovery rules, and no borrowing statutes.  New Jersey comes to mind.  Fights over conflict of laws arise.  Litigation tourists go to states where they think such arguments might win.  Defendants respond with personal jurisdiction challenges to cases filed in states where neither they nor the plaintiffs actually reside.  More side issues to keep lawyers busy.

Then what?  Maybe the parties try a few “bellwether” cases.  Here, plaintiffs open their bag of tricks wide.  MDL judges all-too-often view everything through the prism of settlement, and anything that puts pressure on defendants to fork over big bucks will be employed by at least some of them.  Repeat player MDL judges – especially lately – seem to get picked because they have a good settlement track record.  Settling judges tend to be what mass-tort plaintiffs like, and therefore these plaintiffs have forum shopped to get MDLs before them. It’s all about settlement leverage.  Settling MDL judges will routinely deny preemption, even where it’s widely recognized, look kindly on new and expansive causes of action, allow plaintiffs to manipulate the bellwether selection process so that only plaintiffs’ best cases get tried, make horrendous evidentiary rulings, and force defendants to try cases with multiple plaintiffs at the same time.

In most of these situations, if the defendant wins – presto – that’s a final judgment and the plaintiffs have an immediate right to appellate review.  If the plaintiffs win, well turnabout certainly isn’t fair play.  There’s no final order and no appeal.  Interlocutory appeals?  Rarer than hen’s teeth.  Why would an MDL judge pushing settlement do that?  In this one-way system, the only way a defendant ever gets to appeal a loss, is after losing a bellwether trial.  In that situation the appellate court has a Hobson’s choice, find a way to affirm or let “years of MDL time and effort go to waste.”

The actual safety of the product is largely irrelevant.  That the FDA reviewed the product and allowed it to be marketed is – if the plaintiffs have anything to say about it – is equally irrelevant. Plaintiff’s counsel, employing reptile litigation tactics, tells the jury in opening statement to, “Send a message to this company that put profits before safety!” or the other favorite, “This is the case of a company that stuck its head in the sand and refused to admit the truth!” Or perhaps. “In this case the defendant tried to hornswoggle the FDA.”  And it goes downhill from there.

Defense counsel responds:  “This is the case of Joe Blow, who:

Saw a doctor who knew everything about the risk at issue, and who didn’t need a warning to decide what to do.

Has expert witnesses who are liars and will say anything for money.

Didn’t [read][follow] the warnings.

Had so many prior risk factors that the injury was waiting to happen.

Recklessly misused the product, which was obtained illegally in any event.

Since we haven’t identified any particular product, we can’t be more specific about how a trial would look, so we picked a few of both sides’ greatest hits.   The jury – between six and twelve people from which any anybody with any relevant scientific background has been excluded − hears from (among many possibilities) neurosurgeons, epidemiologists, pharmacologists, pathologists, biostatisticians, and bioethicists.  Then the jury decides the critical issue:   Who is worse?  The evil defendant or the reckless plaintiff?

Then we start counting.  If the defendant wins most of the trials, the mass tort loses its value, the plaintiffs’ attorneys would rather litigate something else, and one way or another the mass tort goes away with a whimper rather than a bang.  If the plaintiffs ring the bell – often assisted by a punitive damages claim or a consolidation of multiple plaintiffs − the litigation continues for a while, until those awards are overturned on appeal (see Vioxx and testosterone, and we hope Pinnacle Hip) or the risk becomes too extreme for the defendant to continue (see Actos).

Eventually, everyone’s exhausted.  Counsel wrestle with inventories and the aggregate settlement rule, or perhaps cy pres and some sort of settlement class action that even more blatantly favors the plaintiffs’ lawyers over their clients than other forms of mass-tort settlements.  The steering committee gets paid for all the work it supposedly did on all plaintiffs’ behalf, even though they’re free to screw any plaintiffs that don’t settle − since they only owe fiduciary duties to their own clients.

Finally, everyone goes home and tries to figure what else to do for the first time in five years.  So they turn on the tube looking for bad news that’s good for them, or start googling product recalls.

Then the whole thing starts over again.