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What is an MDL? -or- Yasmin/Yaz MDL Filed, Take 2

In response to yesterday’s blog Yasmin/Yaz MDL Filed, one non-lawyer reader asked me to restate it in English. I have always been against legalese, but it looks like I did not remember my law school training. So, here is a new version, taking into consideration that some readers are not lawyers, and some readers are lawyers without MDL experience.

What is Multi-district Litigation (MDL)?

Multi-district Litigation is what happens when multiple cases from different federal courts are brought together. It only applies to cases filed in federal courts, though some states have their own version of Multi-district Litigation (for example, Philadelphia has a mass torts program).

When there are many federal cases involving common questions of fact, the Judicial Panel on Multi-district Litigation (JPML) can bring all of those cases together for coordinated pre-trial proceedings. By bringing these cases together, parties to the cases can share in the cost-benefits of avoiding duplicative common discovery. For example, in an individual case by a person alleging Yaz caused a stroke, the plaintiff would have to pay for the costs of depositions of Bayer’s corporate representatives and scientists.

However, in an MDL, where many Yaz plaintiffs are brought together, those depositions take place once, every plaintiff gets to use them, and the cost is split among all of them. Bringing similar cases together in an MDL avoids inconsistent rulings—a judge in one court might find that some evidence is irrelevant, while the same evidence may be ruled relevant by a different judge in another court. That scenario is avoided in an MDL, where one judge will make all the pretrial rulings. Finally, having these cases before one judge saves time and judicial resources—instead of dozens or hundreds of judges, clerks, and administrative time being dedicated to dozens or hundreds of cases, there is only one judge and the resources of his/her court brought to bear on the cases.

At the end of the pretrial proceedings, individual cases are then sent back to their home state. So, if a federal Yaz case was filed in the U.S. District Court of Maryland, and the JPML approved a Yaz MDL in Ohio, the Maryland case would go to Ohio for general, common discovery (for example, what was the chemical makeup of the Yaz, did Bayer know the dangers of drospirenone, etc.), then would be sent back to Maryland for case-specific discovery (what did the plaintiff’s doctor know about the dangers of Yaz, did the plaintiff have any pre-existing medical conditions that could have caused her injury, etc…).

Why are Yasmin/Yaz Lawyers trying to get an MDL started?

Plaintiffs in several Yasmin/Yaz cases have asked the JPML to approve a Yasmin/Yaz MDL. The JPML will receive documents from all parties stating their position on the matter; will have a hearing with arguments for and possibly against; and will then decide whether to form a Yasmin/Yaz MDL.

Yasmin/Yaz Plaintiffs’ lawyers believe that bringing the cases together in an MDL is a good idea. All plaintiffs have used one of the two similar birth control drugs. All the plaintiffs suffered one of a fairly narrow set of injuries. All the plaintiffs must prove the same things in their cases—including whether the drug can cause injury. It just makes sense to do things once, rather than over and over again in cases across the country.

MDLs are not Class Actions

A lot of people get confused on this point. MDL’s are not class actions. A class action is one case with a lot of people in it; an MDL is a lot of people with individual cases brought together for a time. Most class actions are for consumer-type injuries—for example, a defective television, where everyone has basically the same injury. In a personal injury action like those in the Yasmin/Yaz cases, however, each person has an individual case and unique damages. One woman’s stroke may have caused different long-term injuries than another woman’s stroke. Therefore, the Yasmin/Yaz cases cannot be lumped together in a class action. Also, in a class action, the resolution of the case will typically resolve any claim any class member had. In an MDL, each case is unique and may be resolved separately.

I hope this clarifies things. For more on MultiDistrict litigation, see the United States Judicial Panel on MultiDistrict Litigation.

UPDATE: October 1, 2009: The MDL has been approved.