One of the ways mesothelioma victims and their families have been able to increase the amount of compensation they receive due to asbestos exposure is to combine multiple claims into a single class-action lawsuit.
Defining Class Actions
A class action lawsuit is a civil suit in which multiple plaintiffs who have similar claims are represented by a single member of the class. Trying many cases as part of a single class action can have a number of advantages:
- It makes the legal process more efficient, lowering the costs for each individual case.
- It lessens the burden on expert witnesses who otherwise would need to appear multiple times to give the same testimony.
- Award amounts in class actions are typically much larger, because the defendant’s liability is so much greater with multiple parties versus an individual person.
- Class actions can also force companies to change practices or admit fault where they might not otherwise do so with smaller cases.
- It can create a standard set of criteria for similar cases that otherwise might be inconsistent if each case was tried separately.
While these advantages are true in many cases, it is important to know that not every case may benefit from being part of a class action lawsuit.
Class Action vs. Mass Tort
There are many similarities between class action lawsuits and mass torts. For example, both have:
- A large group of individuals claiming the same (or very similar) damages.
- The same defendants who allegedly caused that harm being claimed.
- An administrative consolidation of legal actions into one lawsuit.
However, with a mass tort, unlike for class action lawsuits, individual plaintiffs are required to establish facts related to their specific case. For example, with an asbestos mass tort case, each plaintiff is required to describe how and when they were exposed, and whether that specific exposure led to the development of mesothelioma or some other asbestos-related disease.
Multidistrict Litigation – MDL 875
One of the ways that mass torts are handled is through multidistrict litigation (MDL). In these cases, a special court is established within a specific district of the U.S. federal court system, and often one or more justices are designated to preside over all the cases for that MDL. The MDL system is overseen by the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation, which assigns MDL cases to a specific district to ensure efficient processing of claims. Each MDL is given a number, to which cases are assigned as they are filed in their respective venues.
MDL 875 is the multidistrict litigation number for asbestos federal mass tort cases. Created in 1991, relevant lawsuits are transferred to the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (EDPA), which handles asbestos MDL cases. With nearly 187,000 cases having been transferred to EDPA between 2006 – 2015, MDL 875 is the largest and longest-lasting MDL in United States history.
In general, MDL 875 cases are segmented into one of two categories:
MARDOC (Maritime Docket) – These cases were brought by merchant marines, their spouses or survivors who were exposed to asbestos during the course of their work on shipping vessels. MARDOC contains the largest group of cases that have been handled by MDL 875, and there are some special administrative procedures related solely to MARDOC cases.
Land-based – Cases arising from asbestos exposure on land, such as at mines or other worksites, make up the second broad category. Although there are more land-based cases than MARDOC cases, they can vary significantly from one to another.
Note that only federal asbestos lawsuits are handled by MDL 875; individual states may have their own setups for handling multiple lawsuits. For example, the New York City Asbestos Litigation Court (NYCAL) regularly chooses a number of cases to be included as part of an in extremis cluster, meaning that the plaintiffs in these cases are in critical medical condition. While these cases aren’t necessarily tried together, they are put on the same docket due to the extreme nature of the diseases from which the plaintiffs are suffering.
Class Action vs. Individual Lawsuit
Class members often have the opportunity to opt out of a class action, and they may choose to file a claim on their own, whether or not as part of a mass tort. Individuals who file a complaint separately from a class action often may do so because they believe they have a stronger case than can be made as part of a group, or that their situation is somehow significantly different from other members of the class.
An experienced lawyer who understands the complexities of class action lawsuits versus an individual lawsuit can help you determine which course of legal action may be the best to pursue for you and your family.
Participating in a Class Action
Typically, once a lawsuit is filed, it needs to be certified as a class action. This certification usually happens after all of the preliminary motions and discovery phase of the trial. (To learn more about those phases, visit our mesothelioma lawsuit page.) Once the suit is certified as a class action, potential members of the class will be identified and notified about their possible membership.
If you are notified that you may be a member of an asbestos-related class action, you should immediately contact a qualified asbestos lawyer who has experience litigating such cases to determine your next best course of action.
Brief History of Asbestos Class Actions
As one of the longest-running subjects of mass litigation, asbestos lawsuits have been around for over a half century. This section provides a brief history of the development of class action lawsuits related to asbestos.
1960 – An epidemiological study by Wagner, Sleggs, and Marchand establishes the relationship between pleural mesothelioma and asbestos exposure, inciting a flurry of lawsuits against companies like Manville Corporation.
1966 – The Supreme Court amends Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (FRCP), thereby establishing the prerequisites of class action lawsuits, among other things.
1982 – Johns-Manville Corporation files for bankruptcy after thousands of individuals brought lawsuits alleging harm from asbestos in its insulation and other products used as far back as World War II.
1987 – The Manville Personal Injury Settlement Trust begins operating; however, the first settlements are not paid until court approval in November 1988.
1991 – Federal asbestos cases were consolidated in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania for pretrial purposes. Multidistrict asbestos litigation continues to be heard in this court, and is known as MDL 875.
1997 – In Georgine v. Amchem Products, Inc., the Third Circuit decertifies a settlement class because it did not meet the prerequisites delineated in Rule 23 of the FRCP, a decision affirmed by the Supreme Court.
2002 – Halliburton, which bought Kellogg, Brown & Root (KBR) in 1998, paid $4.2 billion to settle about 374,000 claims for asbestos exposure due to KBR’s waste-burning activities in previous decades. A trust fund was also set up to handle future claims.Sources
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Henderson JD. Protecting Rule 23 Class Members from Unfair Class Action Settlements: the Supreme Court's Amchem and Ortiz Decisions. William Mitchell Law Review. 2000 (27:1).
Robreno EC. MDL-875: Past, Present and Future. American Bar Association Presentation. June 12, 2009; updated Sept. 30, 2013.
Robreno EC. The Federal Asbestos Product Liability Multidistrict Litigation (MDL-875): Black Hole or New Paradigm? Widener Law Journal. 2013 (23:1).
Smith MS. Resolving Asbestos Claims: The Manville Personal Injury Settlement Trust. Law and Contemporary Problems. 1990;53:27-36.
United States District Court Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation. MDL-875 - IN RE: Asbestos Products Liability Litivation (No. VI).December 2015 MDL 875 Casewide Statistical Breakdown. January 7, 2016.
Wagner JC, Sleggs CA, Marchand P. Diffuse Pleural Mesothelioma and Asbestos Exposure in the North Western Cape Province. Br J Ind Med. 1960;17(4):260-271.