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What is a Mass Tort?

A mass tort is a lawsuit involving multiple plaintiffs that have similar injury claims against one or several defendants.[1] Well-known examples of mass torts include environmental claims such as asbestos or mesothelioma.[2] The legal term “tort” refers to civil wrongdoing rather than criminal wrongdoing. Thus, a mass tort flows through the civil litigation process. Since the claims are often similar in facts, harms, and defendants, a judge may consolidate them into a mass tort action.

Commonly, in determining whether consolidation is proper, the court will conduct a “common issues” trial.[3] This is where the original plaintiffs present evidence regarding the liability and factual causation giving rise to the alleged common harm.[4] Any determination as to the liability or causation then binds all the defendants; however, the defendants have the chance to challenge whether the issues decided in the “common issues” trial are truly common with respect to all plaintiffs in later trials.[5]

Multidistrict Litigation

Mass torts can be filed as part of a Multidistrict Litigation, also known as MDL. An MDL happens when lawsuits are joined before one federal judge. The judge then appoints a group of attorneys called the “plaintiff’s steering committee” to pursue the claims being brought. This allows cases in different locations to be heard by the same court.

Why is a Mass Tort Action More Beneficial than an Individual Claim?

In litigation, the party bringing the claim bears the burden of proving an injury has occurred at the fault of the defendant.[6] This requires considerable research and evidence obtained through the discovery process.[7] When the evidence shows a common question of law or fact the court has the authority to order a joint hearing or trial regarding any or all the matters at issue in the actions.[8] Mass Tort actions are often brought against large corporations with extensive resources. Consolidating plaintiffs and claims helps to reduce the cost of litigation.

Mass Torts Today

One mass tort action that has been getting substantial media attention is a civil suit against 3M Combat Arms Earplugs.[9] Claims are being brought for faulty earplugs, resulting in thousands of service members losing their hearing. This case began a series of trials in 2021 and has now become the largest mass tort action in the United States.

[1] Houston County Health Care Authority v. Williams, 961 So. 2d 795, 808-09 (Ala. 2006) [2] Ex Parte Russell Corp., 703 So. 2d 953, 963 (Ala. 1997) [3] Ex Parte Flexible Products Co., 915 So. 2d 34, 49 (Ala. 2005) [4] Id. [5] Id. [6] Ex Parte Russell Corp., 703 So. 2d, 963 (Ala. 1997) [7] Ala. R. Civ. P 23(a) [8] Ala. R. Civ. P. 42 [9] In re 3M COmbat Arms Earplug Products Liability Litigation, 2020 WL 365617 (N.D. FL 2020)

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