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What is a Mass Tort case?

Marriage License DetailThe Diefenbach law firm investigates potential mass tort cases, which are civil actions filed in either federal or state court having a large number of plaintiffs. Mass tort cases differ form others because they involve a large volume of claims, all of which implicate similar facts and issues. In a mass tort proceeding, different claims may also have interdependent values. The main advantages of mass torts over traditional litigation are efficiency and economies of scale.

Because the plaintiffs in a mass tort proceeding often rely on similar underlying facts to prove their cases and raise similar issues for attorneys, it is often feasible to consolidate some portions of a mass tort proceeding. For example, a trial in a mass tort action may involve several plaintiffs in its first stage, which proves that the defendant’s actions were capable of causing the harm that the plaintiffs suffered, qua mass tort status, thus promoting judicial economy. Although mass tort lawsuits involve an immense amount of paperwork and expenses for plaintiffs’ counsel, these costs can be shared to some extent by the plaintiffs.

Perhaps the most highly publicized mass tort lawsuits involve natural or man-made disasters. Lawsuits that involve chemical pollution or contamination are often referred to as environmental tort lawsuits. One of the first environmental tort lawsuits students of the law become familiar with is that portrayed in the movie,  A Civil Action. In this lawsuit, residents of Woburn, Massachusetts alleged that two companies, W.R. Grace and Beatrice Foods Co., had been responsible for the contamination of local wells with dangerous chemicals. According to the plaintiffs, the contamination occurred during the 1960s and 1970s. In its aftermath, a number of children in the area were suffering from Leukemia. Five had died by 1986. While the jury found that Beatrice Foods Co. was not liable for the contamination, the case against W.R. Grace reached resolution through a settlement of $8 million for the plaintiffs. W.R. Grace and Beatrice Foods Co. were also the defendants in a separate lawsuit, filed by the Environmental Protection Agency, and had to pay $70 million to resolve the charges.

Other mass tort lawsuits can involve dangerous or defective products, such as prescription medications. Mass tort lawsuits consolidated into multi-district litigation proceedings are currently pending over such popular medications as Actos, Fosamax, Tylenol, and Yaz/Yasmin. A high-profile mass tort case that came to a conclusion several years ago was brought against Merck for its drug, Vioxx. Vioxx plaintiffs were either people who had suffered heart attacks after taking the medication, or surviving family members who had lost a loved one due to a Vioxx heart attack. That resulted in a jury verdict against Merck for $ 253 million, prompting Merck to settle Vioxx claims in an unprecedented $ 4.85 billion settlement.