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Gibson: Managing drug and medical device mass-tort litigation

November 20, 2013
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Indiana Lawyer Focus
Gibson Gibson

A common mistake is the belief that a mass tort and a class action are interchangeable terms. While the paths of class actions and mass torts may cross, they are separate and distinct legal proceedings. A class action is a single lawsuit where one person brings a claim for many people who have suffered the same damage from a single product. A “class representative” brings the lawsuit not only for herself, but also for everybody in the group who may be similarly affected. A mass tort involves multiple people injured by the same product, but damages for each plaintiff can be vastly different. Like most personal injury cases, every person’s medical history is relevant in mass torts and that history is relevant to the extent of the damages caused by the defective product. So unlike a class action, a firm represents each person individually in a mass tort, and each case is worked up like a traditional personal injury case.

An example of a mass tort could involve a pharmaceutical company that manufactures and sells a bad drug that injures people. Because not everyone will suffer the same extent of injury, the cases are best handled as mass torts. A defectively designed drug, or a drug with insufficient warnings, can cause an epidemic of harm. When that occurs, the injured person will need his or her own lawyer to bring an individual lawsuit. Class actions are simply not good mechanisms to get personal injury damages in a drug case.

How to manage a mass tort

Litigating a mass tort for a plaintiff’s firm can be daunting. The amount of hours, money and manpower expended on one case can be a potential pitfall. It is not uncommon for mass-tort cases to be hotly litigated for three or four years, and some drag on for nearly a decade. Because these cases drag on for so long, they are also extremely risky, since science often changes during the pendency of a case. A case that looked extremely promising four years earlier becomes virtually worthless after the latest study showing the risk of the product isn’t nearly as great as once was thought. The number of plaintiffs’ firms that have filed for bankruptcy or shut their doors as a result of mass-tort litigation is staggering. In all mass-tort cases, the defendants are well funded and have a seemingly endless supply of resources. So how can a plaintiff’s firm thrive in the world of mass torts?

Multidistrict litigation is a mechanism that has created efficiencies in litigating mass-tort cases. In 1968, Congress enacted the Multidistrict Litigation statute 28 U.S.C. § 1407. The statute created a legal procedure to assist with the processing of complex litigation such as pharmaceutical or medical device lawsuits. Prior to its enactment, a defendant could be subject to hundreds of cases around the country involving common issues. The creation of MDL addressed that issue by consolidating cases to one transferee court that oversees all pretrial proceedings and discovery. At the completion of discovery, if a case is not resolved it is remanded to the transferor court for further proceedings, such as a trial.

A mass tort will cost a firm millions of dollars in expenses and overhead during the pendency of a case. While multiple plaintiffs’ firms will share in common benefit expenses such as corporate depositions and document production – the screening of a case, ordering medical records and having a qualified staff to handle day-to-day responsibilities is expensive. In a typical mass tort, a firm could easily screen 3,000 to 4,000 cases to end up with 200 to 300 filed cases. For example, in a recent mass tort involving a medical device, our firm screened more than 4,000 cases and ended up with only 150 legitimate cases. Obviously, such a screening process is expensive and time-consuming, but it ensures the cases you are filing are consistent with current scientific and medical literature.

The screening process is the most significant cost on the front-end, but the expenses don’t end there. For this reason, some firms gather cases, and then refer the cases out to larger firms to handle the litigation and the additional expense. Other firms are involved in the day-to-day litigation and will dedicate resources and manpower to common benefit work. In a mass tort, the court will appoint a steering committee which is a collection of plaintiffs’ counsel that is responsible for managing the progress of the litigation. Because there is significant cost with general causation experts, document production and depositions, members of a steering committee often make substantial capital contributions to a common benefit fund as a means of pooling resources.

Internally, a firm will also spend significant resources. For example, the defendant and plaintiff’s steering committee will often agree to a fact sheet that provides detailed information for each claimant. Fact sheets can often be 30 to 40 pages long and require detailed information that can take weeks to complete. With 300 to 400 cases, a knowledgeable and dedicated staff is mandatory for such a daunting project. In addition to the fact sheet, the staff and lawyers will field calls and questions from clients daily. Accordingly, the cost and overhead needed to manage a mass-tort inventory is not insignificant.

In the end, the risks of litigating a mass tort from a plaintiff’s perspective are real and substantial. The unknowns of a mass tort at the beginning are numerous as a mass tort could ultimately fail under Daubert, the science may evolve during the litigation making causation more difficult, or case-specific issues could make it difficult to prove. That’s why a firm needs to be intelligent and strategic when deciding when and where to dedicate their resources.•

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Jeff Gibson is a partner at Cohen & Malad LLP. His practice is focused on nationwide mass-tort litigation involving dangerous drugs and defective medical devices. Gibson has held leadership positions and served on steering committees fighting against manufacturers on behalf of his injured clients. He can be reached via email at jgibson@cohenandmalad.com. The opinions expressed are those of the author.

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  1. It's a big fat black mark against the US that they radicalized a lot of these Afghan jihadis in the 80s to fight the soviets and then when they predictably got around to biting the hand that fed them, the US had to invade their homelands, install a bunch of corrupt drug kingpins and kleptocrats, take these guys and torture the hell out of them. Why for example did the US have to sodomize them? Dubya said "they hate us for our freedoms!" Here, try some of that freedom whether you like it or not!!! Now they got even more reasons to hate us-- lets just keep bombing the crap out of their populations, installing more puppet regimes, arming one faction against another, etc etc etc.... the US is becoming a monster. No wonder they hate us. Here's my modest recommendation. How about we follow "Just War" theory in the future. St Augustine had it right. How about we treat these obvious prisoners of war according to the Geneva convention instead of torturing them in sadistic and perverted ways.

  2. As usual, John is "spot-on." The subtle but poignant points he makes are numerous and warrant reflection by mediators and users. Oh but were it so simple.

  3. ACLU. Way to step up against the police state. I see a lot of things from the ACLU I don't like but this one is a gold star in its column.... instead of fighting it the authorities should apologize and back off.

  4. Duncan, It's called the RIGHT OF ASSOCIATION and in the old days people believed it did apply to contracts and employment. Then along came title vii.....that aside, I believe that I am free to work or not work for whomever I like regardless: I don't need a law to tell me I'm free. The day I really am compelled to ignore all the facts of social reality in my associations and I blithely go along with it, I'll be a slave of the state. That day is not today......... in the meantime this proposed bill would probably be violative of 18 usc sec 1981 that prohibits discrimination in contracts... a law violated regularly because who could ever really expect to enforce it along the millions of contracts made in the marketplace daily? Some of these so-called civil rights laws are unenforceable and unjust Utopian Social Engineering. Forcing people to love each other will never work.

  5. I am the father of a sweet little one-year-old named girl, who happens to have Down Syndrome. To anyone who reads this who may be considering the decision to terminate, please know that your child will absolutely light up your life as my daughter has the lives of everyone around her. There is no part of me that condones abortion of a child on the basis that he/she has or might have Down Syndrome. From an intellectual standpoint, however, I question the enforceability of this potential law. As it stands now, the bill reads in relevant part as follows: "A person may not intentionally perform or attempt to perform an abortion . . . if the person knows that the pregnant woman is seeking the abortion solely because the fetus has been diagnosed with Down syndrome or a potential diagnosis of Down syndrome." It includes similarly worded provisions abortion on "any other disability" or based on sex selection. It goes so far as to make the medical provider at least potentially liable for wrongful death. First, how does a medical provider "know" that "the pregnant woman is seeking the abortion SOLELY" because of anything? What if the woman says she just doesn't want the baby - not because of the diagnosis - she just doesn't want him/her? Further, how can the doctor be liable for wrongful death, when a Child Wrongful Death claim belongs to the parents? Is there any circumstance in which the mother's comparative fault will not exceed the doctor's alleged comparative fault, thereby barring the claim? If the State wants to discourage women from aborting their children because of a Down Syndrome diagnosis, I'm all for that. Purporting to ban it with an unenforceable law, however, is not the way to effectuate this policy.

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