Bellwether Trials Proposed in Aredia MDL

The MDL

The parties in the MDL concerning the bone cancer drugs, Aredia and Zometa, have proposed 10 bellwether cases for the first round of trials. The MDL court reported last week that it had received the list of cases the plaintiffs and Novartis propose for “Wave 1-A” of the trials. The court set a status conference for May 28 to discuss the list and make further decisions for the first round of trials.

The MDL No. 1760 consists of about 285 cases alleging that the bone-cancer drugs cause osteonecrosis of the jaw, a condition involving the deterioration of the jawbone. The cases were consolidated in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee in April 2006. In October, 2007, the court denied certification of a class of asymptomatic persons treated with Aredia and/or Zometa, seeking medical monitoring. Plaintiffs had alleged that they were at an increased risk for developing osteonecrosis of the jaw because of their treatments with the drugs, and sought periodic dental monitoring, including dental radiographs, which they claimed would help prevent the development the disease. In re: Aredia & Zometa Products Liability Litigation, No. 3:06-MD-1760  (M.D. Tenn. October 10, 2007).

Bellwether Cases

This raises an important issue and gives MassTortDefense the opportunity to make some general observations about bellwether trials.

Particularly in non-class mass tort litigation, such as MDL’s, statewide coordinated proceedings, and large consolidations, judges often resort to use of bellwether trials. Such trials may force plaintiffs' counsel to prepare their standard trial package, and the trials may give some sense of how sound that package is. The bellwether trials may give the court a context to resolve legal questions that arise at a trial as witnesses begin to take the stand. Bellwether trials may test the expert witnesses and theories, and give both parties a sense of how much it costs to try a case to verdict. In theory, test trials are to produce valuable information that will allow the parties to assess the strength and settlement value of all the related cases. Cf. In re Bridgestone/Firestone, Inc. Tires Prods. Liab. Litig., 288 F.3d 1012, 1020 (7th Cir. 2002) (central planning model: one case, one court, one set of rules, one settlement price for all involved, suppresses information that is vital to accurate resolution), cert. denied, 537 U.S. 1105 (2003).

In order for that to occur, however, it is imperative that there be a sufficient number of cases tried, and that the cases selected be representative of the range of cases. Trying one or two cases out of a collection of hundreds, or thousands, certainly doesn't give any statistically significant information about the value of the cases. Test cases should produce a sufficient number of representative verdicts to enable the parties to determine what range of value the cases may have if resolved in the aggregate. Manual For Complex Litigation (4th) § 22.315. If the cases are randomly selected, they will reflect the full range and diversity of the claims at issue, including in terms of factual issues, choice of law, legal theories and defenses, and perhaps counsel as well.

At times, courts have permitted each side to select one-half of the test cases, a practice that will likely not offer a representative sample, but rather a mix of the “best” and “worst” cases for each side. See In re Chevron USA, Inc., 109 F.3d 1016, 1019 (5th Cir. 1997). This approach has an element of fairness, and may offer the benefit of allowing each side to test out issues that are important to its strategy, or which each party feels will be persuasive to the other side once resolved.

And while it would seem self-evident that trial of plaintiffs selected by one side only will not provide meaningful information (unless the other side manages to prevail anyway), it is not unusual for courts to allow plaintiffs to select the “test” cases, as has occurred in aspects of the Vioxx mass tort. In re Vioxx Lit., Case. No. 619 (N.J. Super. Ct., Atlantic Cty.) (ordering plaintiff to select a grouping of eight plaintiffs, with trials consisting of two or more plaintiffs). The danger is, of course, how a few early trial results can have significant unfortunate effects, decreasing rather than increasing the prospects of any early global resolution, raising to unreasonable heights the expectations of the plaintiffs' bar. That plaintiffs secure verdicts in their handful of best cases out of hundreds or thousands, which may bear no resemblance to the best few, should come as no surprise. And may not encourage rational defendants to alter their views about the merits of the bulk of cases.

Even when the court randomly selects bellwethers, or permits the defendants to select some bellwethers, plaintiffs' counsel often seek to exercise control over the process by refusing to go forward with the selected unfavorable cases, either by convincing the client to dismiss or by withdrawing as counsel. This has happened in tobacco, HRT, and Vioxx litigation, for example. Defendants should ask the court to put safeguards in place to minimize plaintiffs’ ability to undermine the selection process, and in no event should plaintiff who dismisses rather than proceed with the selected bellwether have the ability to select the next bellwether. There really ought to be a system to supply substitutes that achieves the same goals as the original selections.

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