The judge overseeing the Gulf oil spill MDL has given notice of its intent to appoint Duke Law Professor Francis McGovern, as a special master to help the parties address several complex issues arising from the Deepwater Horizon accident. In re: Oil Spill by the Oil Rig "Deepwater Horizon" in the Gulf of Mexico, on April 20, 2010, MDL No. 2179 (E.D. La.).
In the order last week, the court accordingly, pursuant to Rule 53 of the Federal Rules of Civil
Procedure, provided notice to the parties of its intention to appoint a special master. In mass tort litigation, courts often appoint special masters to assist in managing the matters, especially the discovery. Rule 53 permits the court to appoint a master for pretrial matters that cannot be addressed effectively or in a timely manner by the court. Appointment of a special master to supervise discovery may be appropriate where the financial stakes justify imposing the expense on the parties, and where the amount of activity required would impose undue burdens on a judge.
The Manual for Complex Litigation says that it is preferable for the court to appoint the special master with the parties' consent, and here the court is giving the parties an opportunity to weigh in. The success of the special master in the role the court assigns depends in the first instance on the person selected. Prof. McGovern is well known to our readers, having served as special master or mediator in dozens of major mass torts, including several asbestos matters, DDT toxic exposure litigation, the Dalkon-Shield controversy, and silicone gel breast implant litigation. As an academic, he has advocated for enhanced roles for court appointed special masters as "case managers" and "settlement masters." As a practicing case manager, he has helped courts to organize the pretrial administration of a case, and used ADR techniques to help the parties agree on efficient discovery approaches and schedules. (But note the Manual for Complex Litigation advises against referral of extensive pretrial management to a special master, at Section 10.14). His role as settlement master in some cases has required that he develop innovative ways to implement potential settlements. In the Dalkon Shield litigation, he helped organize and administer the distribution of the $2.4 billion trust established to compensate 100,000 women who had sued the maker of the device.
He is also a prolific author on mass torts issues, including A Model Mass Tort: The PPA Experience, 54 Drake Law Review 621-638 (2006); A Model State Mass Tort Settlement Statute, 80 Tulane Law Review 1809-1826 (2006); and A Proposed Settlement Rule for Mass Torts, 74 UMKC Law Review 623-636 (2006).
The final order appointing the special master will specify the scope of the reference, the circumstances under which ex parte communication will be deemed appropriate, and other relevant details. Ordinarily, the special master will produce a report on the matters in his or her charge, with findings of fact and conclusions of law which would be reviewed by the district court.