What Exactly is a Bellwether Trial? A Plaintiff Perspective

 

bellwether trial

A bellwether trial is a small consolidation of lawsuits, taken from a larger group of similar cases, to be tried first. The bellwether trial is like a practice run to help anticipate the results of the future similar cases.

To further explain, we have to go back to the beginning. How do bellwether cases come about in the first place? We have to begin with mass tort litigation.

A mass tort is a civil action involving numerous plaintiffs against one or more defendants. Mass torts typically involve a product or incident that has harmed a large number of people such as dangerous side effects from pharmaceutical drugs, injuries as a result of a faulty medical device, or mass injuries or casualties in a large accident or chemical spill. While those are only examples, a mass tort litigation is designed to help a large number of people.

Once there have been many cases filed, a Multi-District Litigation (MDL) is formed to essentially speed up the legal process. An MDL is a federal legal procedure that helps fast-track the civil lawsuits filed that have a common “question of fact” that is pending in different federal district courts. The cases are fast-tracked by transferring and consolidating them for pretrial proceedings before a judge. After an MDL has been filed, the judge presiding over the case and attorneys involved will select cases in the MDL to be included in the bellwether trials.

One of the common issues of an MDL is that it would not be feasible to address a large group of sprawling lawsuits involved in an MDL so to better-manage the specific entity of the legal system, a bellwether trial, a smaller consolidation of these cases, is tried in front of the judge. If the outcome of these beginning cases goes well for the plaintiffs, the MDL’s lead attorneys can expect similar results and start to try the remaining suits.

The benefits of bellwether trials are abundant. An unsuccessful bellwether trial result might indicate to the lead attorneys that trying the remaining cases would be a waste of time and money. A bad bellwether result might also help the lead attorneys restructure the remaining cases so they might have more success in front of the judge.

On the other hand, bellwether trials offer the unique opportunity for plaintiffs to test the structure of their case and see how the judge or jury perceive the argument. If the initial arguments have mixed success, the lead attorneys can try to restructure the argument in hopes of stronger results for the broader range of cases involved in the MDL.

The cases selected for a bellwether trial are meant to represent the broader range of cases involved in the MDL. The results of the bellwether trial are in no way definitive of other cases tried from the MDL. Rather, the bellwether trial results are just expectation indicators.

Successful bellwether trials can also be advantageous by influencing the defense to settle the remaining cases. If the bellwether plaintiffs are awarded a large verdict, the defense is more likely to be inclined to settle the remaining cases out-of-court, cutting the legal fees and making payouts larger for the plaintiffs.

Do you have a legal question regarding a mass tort, MDL, or bellwether? Contact TorHoerman Law Firm.

 

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