Multidistrict Litigation

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A legal proceeding in federal civil litigation, aimed at reducing the burden on federal district courts, and make litigation more convenient for parties and promote overall efficiency in the courts. Congress codified MDLs in 28 U.S.C § 1407. When civil actions in different district courts involve common questions of fact, they may be temporarily consolidated and transferred to a single district court for pretrial proceedings, though they remain separate cases. Parties in a lawsuit can file a motion to transfer to the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation, which consists of seven circuit and district judges designated by the Chief Justice of the United States. The Panel will decide whether to transfer the case and appoint a transferee judge to oversee the proceedings, based on the location of discovery materials, the convenience of the witnesses, and the location of the majority of actions. The Panel’s selection of the transferee court may be an important factor in the outcome of a case, as some jurisdictions are more plaintiff-friendly or defendant-friendly. The transferee judge will then select a lead counsel to coordinate discovery, though each individual party maintains their private attorney throughout the process.

After discovery and pretrial proceedings, any remaining cases are transferred back to its original district for trial. However, many cases reach global settlements or are disposed of via dismissal or summary judgment before ever reaching that stage. If there are unsettled cases, a transferee judge also may select individual suits for a trial, called a bellwether trial. These trials serve as tests to see how juries will rule on the facts of a case and help the other parties to the MDL assess whether to continue with trial or settle.

The majority of MDLs are antitrust and product liability cases and can sometimes involve several thousand individual lawsuits. Many MDLS resemble class actions but do not obtain class certification under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 23(a). Multidistrict litigation has continued to grow and now makes up more than 50 percent of the federal civil caseload.

[Last updated in June of 2020 by the Wex Definitions Team]