Mass Tort Defense

MDL Court Rejects Consolidation of Bellwether Trials

Readers of MassTortDefense know how significant the earliest few trials in any mass tort can be, influencing later trials and shaping settlement strategies.  Accordingly, which cases go first, from among the hundreds or thousands in the mass tort, and how they are tried, can be extremely significant.  The federal court overseeing the MDL concerning the antibiotic Levaquin recently denied plaintiffs' motion to consolidate three bellwether cases for the first trial. In re Levaquin Products Liability Litigation, MDL No. 08-1943, (D. Minn.). 

In the Order, the court noted that it had initially selected fifteen cases for evaluation and initial case-specific fact discovery in the bellwether-selection process. Directed by the court to meet and confer on an ordering of these cases for the first trials, the parties narrowed the field to seven remaining bellwether cases for selection for trial. Plaintiffs then moved to consolidate three of the cases for the first trial.  They asserted that the cases share similar characteristics that are central to this litigation and that consolidation would promote judicial efficiency and the interests of justice, while testing the merits of plaintiffs’ arguments. Defendants opposed the motion, arguing that plaintiffs had not met their burden of showing that a consolidated trial’s benefits would outweigh individual
issues in the case. Specifically, defendants argued that individual issues – including each
plaintiff’s unique medical history, each prescribing physician’s knowledge of warnings in the Levaquin package insert, and each plaintiff’s alleged injuries – precluded consolidation.

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 42(a)(2) affords a court broad discretion to consolidate for trial actions involving common questions of law or fact. The party seeking consolidation bears the burden of showing that consolidation would promote judicial convenience and economy. Consolidation is inappropriate, however, if it leads to inefficiency, inconvenience, or unfair prejudice to a party.

Plaintiffs also argued that judicial economy would be served by consolidation because common sources of evidence established the supposedly common facts. For example, the same generic
expert witnesses would testify on behalf of each individual plaintiff, and the regulatory and
corporate history of the drug is the same for each plaintiff. Because of these alleged commonalities and claimed efficiencies, plaintiffs argued that consolidation of the three cases would save the court twenty trial days, not insignificant.
 
In opposition, defendants argued that individual issues, including what dose of Levaquin each physician prescribed to treat each plaintiff’s infection, and each individual plaintiff’s medical history, including their various risk factors for the injury alleged such as age, concomitant medication use including corticosteroids, prior injury, and other factors, all made consolidation inappropriate.

Moreover, defendants argued that consolidation would be prejudicial to them because there are complicated causation issues in each case, and multiple plaintiffs would testify regarding similar injuries, which could cause jury confusion. See In re Consol. Parlodel Litig., 182 F.R.D. 441, 447 (D.N.J. 1999) (“A consolidated trial . . . would compress critical evidence of specific causation and
marketing to a level which would deprive [the defendant] of a fair opportunity to defend itself.”).

At this stage of the MDL, the court concluded, consolidation was not merited. With respect to
the consolidation of cases, the Manual for Complex Litigation notes, “If there are few prior verdicts, judgments, or settlements, additional information may be needed to determine whether aggregation is appropriate. The need for such information may lead a judge to require a number of single-plaintiff, single-defendant trials, or other small trials.” Manual for Complex Litigation § 22.314, at 359 (4th ed. 2004). In the mass tort involving breast implants, the courts noted that that “[u]ntil enough trials have occurred so that the contours of various types of claims within the . . .
litigation are known, courts should proceed with extreme caution in consolidating claims.” In re Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., 975 S.W.2d 601, 603 (Tex. 1998).

To date, there are over 240 federal court cases in this MDL and just under 100 state court cases addressing claims similar to those brought by the bellwether plaintiffs. Indeed, this is a still growing MDL, found the court, the exact factual and legal contours of which are still undefined. The parties continue to conduct critical discovery, including deposing plaintiffs’ prescribing physicians. The merits of the parties’ arguments have not been tested at trial or in dispositive motions.

The court recognized that "the stakes are high" because the initial bellwether trials in this MDL may serve as the basis for the parties’ resolution of remaining, pending cases. Thus, although plaintiffs
appear to have demonstrated some commonalities in fact and law among the three
individual plaintiffs’ cases, this motion was denied at this time. 

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Sean P. Wajert of Shook, Hardy & Bacon LLP