Massachusetts federal and state courts have become a hub of mass tort actions. Mass tort actions are very different from typical North Shore, Lynnfield, Lynn and Saugus torts, accidents and injury law. Mass torts require massive resources and involve high-stakes but what exactly is a mass tort? Many people understand that a tort is a wrongful act that causes harm or injury to a person and exposes the wrongdoer to civil liability. Typically, tort actions involve one plaintiff and one defendant. For example, imagine that you are on your way home from work on Route 128 and the traffic comes to a sudden grinding halt. You come to a complete stop and the car following you slams into the back of your car. This is a classic tort action involving a wrongful act, you as the single plaintiff and the other driver as the defendant. A mass tort is different because where it also involves a single wrongful act; the wrongful act causes harm or injury to numerous victims.
A majority of the mass tort actions in the Commonwealth are centralized in the Federal District Court District of Massachusetts; however some prominent mass torts are in the state civil courts. Just one mass tort action can involve numerous cases. For example, over 3,000 claims related to a mass tort action involving the dialysis products GranuFlo and NaturaLyte manufactured by Fresenius were filed in the Middlesex County Superior Court in Woburn. See In re: Consolidated Fresenius Cases, CV2013-03400. A settlement for the Fresenius cases in the amount of $250 million was reached earlier this year.
While many mass tort actions involve injuries caused by defective consumer products, specifically pharmaceutical drugs or medical devices, mass torts can also arise from large scale disasters (such as an oil spill) or toxic torts (such as contaminated groundwater). Mass tort actions allow a large number of plaintiffs to sue a common defendant in a consolidated action if their cases arise from a common cause.
There are advantages to consolidating cases in a mass tort rather than pursuing each individual plaintiff’s claim in single separate trials. One purpose is to consolidate cases in a single court to promote judicial efficiency by having coordinated and consistent pretrial proceedings. Having a single judge oversee the pretrial events prevents duplicative discovery and inconsistent rulings. For example, in a mass tort action a particular witness’s deposition may only need to be taken once and may be used in all of the consolidated cases; however, if the cases are not part of a mass tort, the witness may otherwise have to testify in every individual case.
The consolidation of cases in a mass tort action also reduces litigation costs. Plaintiffs’ lawyers can pool their resources and coordinate to evenly allocate costs of investigation and discovery that may benefit all of the cases. Defendants also benefit because they do not have to simultaneously defend multiple cases in different jurisdictions.
Mass tort actions have similarities to class action lawsuits. Mass torts and class actions both include multiple claimants that were injured by a common act, the claims are consolidated and the claims are against a common defendant or defendants. Despite these similarities there are several distinctions that set them apart.
Perhaps the key distinction is that in a class action all claimants are treated as one plaintiff and are represented by a class representative. In a mass tort action, each individual is considered to be a separate plaintiff. Certification of a class action requires that “there are questions of law or fact common to the class” and “the claims or defenses of the representative parties are typical of the claims or defenses of the class.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 23. Plaintiffs in mass tort actions often cannot meet the class action certification requirements because there are unique questions of law or fact to each plaintiff’s individual case. For example, in a mass tort involving injuries from a defective pharmaceutical drug a plaintiff’s individual medical history may be factually relevant to that individual plaintiff’s case.
Mass tort actions are just one potential procedural vehicle for seeking compensation for your injuries, particularly when caused by a defective product. It can be helpful to consult with an experienced mass tort attorney to determine if your case may be eligible to participate in a mass tort action.