Abandonment Issues in an MDL

The defendant in a medical device MDL recently flagged an important and thorny issue that impacts many if not most MDL's.  And it has to do with bellwether trials and the selection of bellwether plaintiffs.

As we have noted, bellwethers come from the notion that it is highly unlikely, sometimes impossible, that all or even most cases in a multidistrict litigation will go to trial.  The theory is that properly selected bellwether plaintiffs can provide crucial information for the court and the parties that can contribute meaningfully to resolution of the overall litigation.  The selection of bellwether plaintiffs, accordingly, can advance or retard this goal.

Courts and commentators have identified all measure of bellwether selection processes, using multiple different criteria, ranging from random selection, to selection by the court, to suggestions by the parties for selection by the court, a draft system of selection by the parties, and more.  Under almost any selection process, a potential monkey wrench toss occurs based on the fact that a selected plaintiff may, for many reasons, decide not to pursue his or her claim.  Particularly, if a selected plaintiff would not be a good strategic choice for plaintiffs' counsel or the other plaintiffs, there is tremendous incentive to abandon the claim in some fashion rather than have the trial.

Such abandonments/dismissals create a number of issues, with concerns of plaintiffs gaming the system, of remaining cases not meeting as well the goals of the bellwether process, and of delay. The latter arises because, often, only a subset of cases within the MDL are selected for case-specific discovery, and sometimes only a further subset of those are selected for full trial work-up. Thus the loss of bellwether cases to voluntary dismissal can necessitate a further round of work.  For example in In re: Cook Medical, Inc. Pelvic Repair System Products Liability Litigation, MDL No. 2440 (S.D. W.Va. 5/19/15) (responding to serial abandonment by plaintiffs of their own selections by ordering 253 more cases into the pool).

Defendants' brief in In Re: Zimmer Nexgen Knee Implant Products Liability Litigation, No. 1:11-cv-05468 (N.D. Ill.) is instructive: apparently more than a dozen bellwether plaintiffs were abandoned as they came up for trial. MDL courts have employed various methods to try to minimize this, such as use of Lone Pine-type orders, loss of draft picks or extra draft picks to the other side (so instead of alternating plaintiff and defendant choices, there may be two selections in a row by one side). None of those procedures are fully effective.

Here, defendant moved to compel participation (leading to dismissal); and then moved to preclude any future withdrawal or dismissal that was linked to any failure on the part of the plaintiff attorney to timely screen the case thoroughly.

It will be interesting to see the reaction and further development of deterrence.

 

Yaz Court in NJ Issues Bellwether Trial CMO

The court overseeing the coordinated litigation in New Jersey state court over the birth control pills Yaz, Yasmin, and Ocella recently issued a case management order.  See CMO No. 25 - Bellwether Trial Selection Plan.

Here at MassTortDefense we are always interested in the nuts and bolts of how mass tort litigation is managed, and have posted about bellwether trials before. The NJ court order calls for creation of a pool of 18 cases from which the first trials will come. Nine will be selected by plaintiffs and nine by defendant. Of the nine on each side, 3 must allege each of the three main alleged injuries in this litigation.

Case specific discovery for the cases in the pool will begin in August, 2011, and must be completed in November, 2011. The order establishes a schedule for expert discovery and challenges to experts.

The bellwether trials will be selected from the group of 18.  If the parties cannot agree on a sequence, the Court will decide. The first trial is set for September, 2012.

There are about 1,000 cases pending in the New Jersey proceedings. The Court stated it had not yet decided whether there will be individual trials or consolidations. See In re Yaz, Yasmin, and Ocella Litigation, N.J. Super. Ct., No. 287 (7/8/11). 
 

Interesting Case Management Issue in Welding MDL

We have posted about the welding fumes MDL before. Call it case management by option-- as the court has worked through the bellwether trials, it is interesting that the MDL court gave the next-up plaintiff (in the Street trial) a choice.  Plaintiff could either (1) maintain his existing trial date of June 1, 2011, at which trial he may not offer the opinions of his expert Dr. Sanchez-Ramos; or (2) postpone the starting date for trial of his case until on or about November 1, 2011, and the Court would conduct a Daubert hearing on the admissibility of Dr. Sanchez-Ramos’s opinions during the summer of 2011.

Plaintiff Street chose the second option. Accordingly, the MDL Court has set the Daubert hearing to begin on August 24, 2011, with the expectation the hearing will last two days. The parties were directed to negotiate a schedule for briefing, expert depositions, and so on, and provide it to the Special Master as soon as possible. The schedule will include a deadline of April 5, 2011, for provision by Dr. Sanchez-Ramos of a supplemental expert report and literature review list.


Trial of the Street case was accordingly postponed to November 1, 2011. The Court said it will
discuss trial preparation deadlines with the parties during the next case management teleconference.  In re Welding Fume Products Liability Litigation,  No. 1:03-CV-17000 (N.D. Ohio, 3/25/11).  

Dismissal of FEMA Trailer MDL Bellwether Plaintiff Affirmed

With the recognition by many courts of the inappropriateness of the use of the class action device for personal injury claims, the use of other methods to manage mass torts has emerged.  One approach frequently seen within MDLs is the bellwether trial.  Only a proportion of the cases are selected for case specific discovery; only a fraction of them go into a trial pool; and only a percentage of them are selected for trial, to serve as bellwethers for the remaining cases. The hope is that the trial-selected cases provide sufficient information, about claims and defenses, and case values, to inform and propel the disposition of the remaining cases. 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. Accordingly, which cases go first, from among the hundreds or thousands in the mass tort can be extremely significant.

The process for selection of the bellwether cases is crucial.  If plaintiffs are permitted to handpick their best cases to go first, the process works only if plaintiffs lose their best cases; if they win their best cases, that comes as no surprise to anyone.  Ideally the court would pick truly representative cases. 

A significant, although less well recognized issue, is what happens when a bellwether plaintiff cannot or will not go to trial.  Plaintiffs often adopt this tactic to replace a plaintiff whose claim turns out to be, after discovery, not as strong as originally expected.  In the FEMA trailer formaldehyde MDL, the Fifth Circuit recently confirmed that plaintiffs cannot play fast and loose with the procedure, dropping plaintiffs from the line for trial without some sanction. The court of appeals refused to resuscitate a bellwether claim that was dismissed with prejudice after the plaintiff said he could not go forward with trial. In re: FEMA Trailer Formaldehyde Products Liability Litig., No. 09-31131 (5th Cir. 12/14/10).

Raymond Bell and his mother, like thousands of other plaintiffs, filed suit against multiple defendants who participated in the government’s program to supply temporary housing for victims of the devastating 2005 hurricanes. These cases were assigned by the Multi-District Litigation Panel for pretrial management by Judge Engelhardt in New Orleans. The MDL court set dates in 2009 and 2010 for four bellwether cases, each to be prosecuted by a plaintiff against one of the four trailer manufacturers estimated to have the most units at issue in the suits. The case of Diana Bell, Raymond’s mother, was identified as the bellwether case against Keystone RV, manufacturer of the trailer in which her family had lived.  Diana then dropped out, and voluntarily dismissed her case with prejudice. After consulting with counsel, the court promptly selected Raymond Bell as the next bellwether plaintiff in order to maintain the benefit of trial preparation concerning the particular trailer they both had lived in. The next Bell, however, also moved to substitute a new bellwether plaintiff or obtain a continuance of the 2010 trial date.

He made three arguments in support of this dual motion. He asserted he could not take two weeks off from his job to attend trial;  he could not afford to forego at least one week of income; and the trial dates would interfere with his participation in Community College classes at the beginning of the spring semester.

The trial court concluded that Raymond Bell really did not want to go to trial. He moved for a dismissal without prejudice and attached an affidavit asserting as fact the arguments noted above. He expressed doubt about the curative impact of the judge’s proposed instruction if he were to be absent from part of the trial.  The MDL court noted that plaintiffs’ counsel should take notice that all plaintiffs who assert claims in an MDL have to be ready and willing to serve as bellwether plaintiffs, if called upon to do so. The claims of those plaintiffs who refuse to do so, when called upon, will be dismissed with prejudice.

The reasoning was that the parties had expended much time, effort, and money into readying the case involving the Bell trailer for trial. Based on the decisions of the plaintiffs, all the pre-trial work and discovery relating to the Bell trailer was rendered utterly useless. All of the resources spent in preparing this case for trial had been wasted. Because the parties had to choose another bellwether plaintiff, which will involve conducting discovery on an entirely different trailer and readying a completely different case for trial, the claims of Mr. Bell, like those of Mrs. Bell, should be dismissed with prejudice.   Not doing so would possibly cause other bellwether plaintiffs to “jump ship” at the last minute; this is obviously a tactic that any MDL court does not wish to encourage.

On appeal the Fifth Circuit found that it was not hard to justify the court’s decision to deny the plaintiff's alternative motions. Raymond Bell’s attempt to withdraw as plaintiff or to continue seemed contrived, especially in light of his mother’s less than diligent prosecution of a claim bearing on the same trailer. Nothing in his motion papers distinguished Bell’s inconvenience in going forward with trial from the inconvenience that any plaintiff may suffer from having to try the case he has filed. The case had been pending for months, the parties had been actively preparing for trial.

Plain legal prejudice would have accrued to defendants from an unconditional dismissal of Raymond Bell’s case without prejudice. The court would have to realign Keystone RV with a new bellwether plaintiff who resided in a different trailer and whose suit would almost surely add a different group of subsidiary defendants. Not only would Bell be able to refile his suit, but the appellees were in no way spared the continuing costs of legal defense. Defendants'  investment in trial preparation for Bell’s case was wasted. Moreover, other plaintiffs in the FEMA trailer formaldehyde litigation were disadvantaged by the tactics employed on Bell’s behalf as they were delayed in acquiring trial information important for their cases. The size and scope of this multiparty litigation inescapably heightened the prejudice from Bell’s motion to dismiss.

Bottom line is that Bell wanted to have his cake and eat it too by withdrawing from a bellwether
trial and then sitting back to await the outcome of another plaintiff’s experience against the appellees. When a plaintiff files any court case, however, sitting back is no option. He must be prepared to undergo the costs, psychological, economic and otherwise, that litigation entails. That the plaintiff becomes one of a mass of thousands pursuing particular defendants lends urgency to this reality. Courts must be exceedingly wary of mass litigation in which plaintiffs are unwilling to move their cases to trial. Any individual case may be selected as a bellwether, and no plaintiff has the right to avoid the obligation to proceed with his own suit, if so selected.

 

 

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. 

Update on FEMA Trailer MDL

A federal judge has decided an that an advisory jury can hear evidence on claims against the U.S. government in bellwether trials in the MDL concerning alleged formaldehyde-laden trailers. In re: FEMA Trailer Formaldehyde Products Liability Litigation, MDL 1873 (E.D. La.)

Readers of MassTortDefense will recall how Hurricane Katrina devastated much of the Gulf Coast in 2005. The total damage of Hurricane Katrina has been estimated at $75 billion, while not-much-later Hurricane Rita caused $10 billion in damage. The government, through FEMA, moved individuals whose homes were lost or deemed uninhabitable into makeshift housing provided by the agency.  Plaintiffs allege that the trailers had components that exposed them to dangerous and excessive levels of formaldehyde.

The court has decided that it will hold bellwether trials in the MDL. But the defendants include both private entities and the government. The government moved to strike the jury demand and requested that a jury not be involved in any manner in determining its liability. The federal government argued that, because the plaintiffs have filed claims under the Federal Torts Claims Act (“FTCA”), 28 U.S.C. §§ 2671-2680 and 28 U.S.C. § 1346(b), the use of any jury is precluded under 28 U.S.C. § 2402 which states that “[a]ny action against the United States under section 1346 shall be tried by the court without a jury. . .”  The Plaintiffs’ Steering Committee (“PSC”) and the nongovernmental defendants both opposed the motion. Indeed, both the PSC and the non-governmental defendants contended that it is both permissible and sensible for the court to utilize an advisory jury who will hear evidence of the Government’s alleged fault in order to properly apportion liability to all parties. The government claimed that any use of even an advisory jury contravenes the statute and congressional intent to have FTCA cases decided by the court without a jury.

Rule 39(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure states, in pertinent part, “[i]n an action
not triable of right by a jury, the court, on motion or on its own . . . may try any issue with an
advisory jury.”  The court found that it has the power to make use of an advisory jury in this case. Because of the purely advisory function that a jury empaneled under Rule 39(c) has, the use of an advisory jury is not precluded under 28 U.S.C. § 2402. The court concluded it will empanel a jury to hear the bellwether plaintiffs’ claims against the non-governmental defendants in the bellwether trials and will exercise its discretion to use that jury in an advisory capacity to hear the claims against the government in those same trials.

This advisory jury will not be asked or allowed to make a binding factual determination on the plaintiffs’ FTCA claims; instead, it will be allowed to hear the case and, through the verdict, advise the court, who will remain free to consider the same evidence and completely disregard such findings. The court determined that utilizing an advisory jury will alleviate jury confusion that would result if jurors are expected to listen to all the evidence against all the defendants - including FEMA - but then are instructed to ignore any evidence pertinent to the government.
 

 

Ruling on Contractors' Motion to Dismiss in FEMA Trailer MDL

The federal judge presiding over the MDL involving litigation claiming trailers issued after Hurricane Katrina allegedly exposed residents to formaldehyde has declined to dismiss government contractors that hauled and installed the trailers.  In re  FEMA Trailer Formaldehyde Products Liability Litigation, MDL No. 1873 (E.D. La.).  Judge Engelhardt rejected the motion of Shaw Environmental Inc. and CH2M Hill Constructors, Inc. to be dismissed from a multiple-plaintiff case in the trailer MDL.  The court rejected the contractors' arguments that the plaintiffs lacked standing;  he also rejected the contractors'  argument that the FEMA trailer residents failed to plead claims cognizable under the Louisiana Products Liability Act.

The plaintiffs in this case are Louisiana residents who had lived in trailers issued by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. They sued the makers and distributors of FEMA trailers
in November, 2007. Then in early 2009, the plaintiffs added trailer haulers and installers,
Shaw and CH2M Hill, as defendants.

The contractors argued first that the plaintiffs lacked standing because they had failed to link  particular plaintiffs to any particular defendant involved in their specific unit.  The court ruled that because the original complaint matched plaintiffs to trailer manufacturers, those originally named plaintiffs had standing to add defendants in the chain of distribution. Those plaintiffs who failed to assert any linkage at all were dismissed without prejudice.

Second, the contractors argued prescription, the Louisiana version of laches, asserting that the plaintiffs' products liability claims prescribed on May 18, 2007, or one year after the first trailer suit was filed. The contractors claimed that the plaintiffs should have known about their claim for formaldehyde exposure by that date. Judge Engelhardt, however, ruled that the clock started from the date of injury, and it is impossible to determine in advance exactly when each plaintiff became aware of his or her injuries.

"What each ... plaintiff knew about formaldehyde exposure or the possibility of legal claims relating thereto; what injury each such plaintiff allegedly experienced from such exposure, and when knowledge of these alleged injuries occurred, are questions that can be answered only a case-by-case basis. These facts are not evident from the face of the complaints,” Judge Engelhardt wrote.

Finally, Judge Engelhardt rejected the contractors contention that the state product liability act did not apply to them because they were not manufacturers of the trailers.  While Louisiana law determines that the proper assembly of a defective part does not create manufacturer liability, here, in contrast, plaintiffs contended that the alleged formaldehyde-related defect occurred in part because of the assembly process used by the contractors.  An alleged defect which manifests itself in the assembly process can impose Louisiana Products Liability Act "manufacturer" liability on a party when the defect is created by the assembly process, he concluded.

Readers will recall that last December, the court properly refused to grant class certification to the six proposed subclasses of plaintiffs in this MDL, finding they did not meet the standards required for class certification under Rule 23. The plaintiffs had sought certification of four state subclasses of individuals who resided in trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Louisiana, Texas, Alabama and Mississippi following hurricanes Katrina and Rita, as well as a future medical monitoring subclass, and an economic loss subclass.  And the court has begun selecting bellwether cases for the first trials.

 

FEMA Trailer MDL Selects First Bellwether Trial

Judge Engelhardt of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, overseeing the MDL relating to the alleged formaldehyde contamination of FEMA trailers used in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, has chosen a lawsuit by a New Orleans woman and her son to serve as the first bellwether case in this MDL. See In re: FEMA Trailer Formaldehyde Products Liability Litigation, MDL-1873 (E.D. La.).  Plaintiffs generally allege that trailers issued by the government following Hurricane Katrina exposed residents to high levels of the chemical formaldehyde.

The court had ordered the parties to submit the names of no less than 50 potential bellwether trial plaintiffs. From these names, one plaintiff for each of four bellwether jury trials was to  be selected. The manufacturer defendants for these four trials had to be the four estimated to have the most emergency housing units at issue in this proceeding. (These four manufacturers are Gulf Stream, Fleetwood, Forest River, and Keystone RV.)  Only plaintiffs who have identified and sued one of the four manufacturers, the relevant contractor, and the Government, were eligible to serve as bellwether trial plaintiffs. In addition, the bellwether plaintiffs must be selected from those plaintiffs for whom Plaintiff Fact Sheets already have been obtained and provided to the defendants. In addition, actions chosen for bellwether trials must have proper venue in the Eastern District of Louisiana, unless the parties in question consent to trial in this district.  The court, from that list, selected the case brought by Alana Alexander and Christopher Cooper against Gulf Stream Coach Inc. to be the first that will be tried in federal court. The trial is set for Sept. 14, with three other cases against the other different defendants scheduled to follow as the court approached the hundreds of suits through a series of bellwether trials.

Readers will recall that last December, the court properly refused to grant class certification to the six proposed subclasses of plaintiffs, finding they did not meet the standards required for class certification under Rule 23. The plaintiffs had sought certification of four state subclasses of individuals who resided in trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Louisiana, Texas, Alabama and Mississippi following hurricanes Katrina and Rita, as well as a future medical monitoring subclass, and an economic loss subclass.

The U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation consolidated a number of suits against the
government and a handful of trailer manufacturers over the alleged formaldehyde exposure
in October 2007, despite defendants’ objections. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention  released in 2008 the results of a study which it commissioned concerning formaldehyde levels in mobile homes provided to residents of the Gulf Coast affected by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  CDC has been working with FEMA and other agencies to investigate possible levels of formaldehyde in the trailers and mobile homes.
 

MDL Court Holds To Pretrial Deadlines For Next Bellwether Case In Welding Fumes

The MDL court in the In re Welding Fume Products Liability Litigation, MDL-1535 (N.D. Ohio) recently issued an interesting Order about mediation. Not ordering mediation. Instead, it came to the Court’s attention that various plaintiff counsel have stated publicly that the Court has ordered the parties to engage in mediation. This statement, in turn, has led to various conjectures and to requests that assorted deadlines be postponed pending mediation. The Court issued an “Order to end inappropriate speculation.” Although the MDL Court did, sua sponte, raise the concept of mediation, the Court has not ordered any mediation in this case. In particular, the Court has scheduled the next MDL bellwether case – Byers v. Lincoln Electric Company – for trial in November of 2008. The Court issued the Order to make “clear here that it expects the parties will pursue all deadlines in their welding fumes litigation accordingly.” Motions in limine are due 9/15. Dispositive motions are due 9/8.

In this mass tort, plaintiffs have moved to dismiss more than 4,000 cases in the MDL. The total number of cases pending against the welding defendants has dropped by over two-thirds. Plaintiffs have been forced to dismiss five trial-ready cases, including three slated for early trials in the MDL. Although plaintiffs secured a significant verdict last December in the Tamraz case, it was the first plaintiff victory in several years, and juries have found for defendants in 20 of the last 23 plaintiffs’ cases tried in this litigation, including consolidated cases that are heavily weighted toward plaintiffs and cases in jurisdictions that are considered plaintiff-friendly.

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.