In 1991, a panel of federal judges transferred all federal asbestos personal injury claims to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. The move was intended to streamline the handling of thousands of federal asbestos cases.
The cases were transferred and consolidated into Multidistrict Litigation No. 875 (MDL No. 875).
Last month, a federal judicial panel stopped the practice of centralizing most federal asbestos cases. The panel found that, more than 20 years after it was established, MDL No. 875 had eliminated a backlog of asbestos cases.
How Cases End Up in Federal Court
The decision whether to file a lawsuit in federal or state court varies in each case.
Federal courts generally have jurisdiction over lawsuits between parties located in different states, claims involving federal statutes, and cases involving federal constitutional questions. Asbestos personal injury cases usually involve multiple parties located in different states. As a result, asbestos plaintiffs are often eligible to file their cases in multiple federal or state courts.
Where to file generally boils down to a tactical decision by the plaintiff’s legal team. Plaintiffs’ attorneys consider a variety of factors when choosing a potentially favorable court. Relevant factors often include individual court rules and how quickly cases typically go to trial in the chosen court.
MDL No. 875’s Claim-By-Claim Resolution
Many expected the MDL to encourage the mass resolution of cases in one swoop, but it ended up taking a claim-by-claim approach to resolving the cases.
Soon after MDL No. 875 was established, many observers thought the presiding judge would facilitate a wide-reaching settlement between plaintiffs and the major asbestos defendants. When that didn’t happen, a group of 20 asbestos defendants and leading asbestos plaintiffs’ attorneys tried to negotiate a settlement that would affect the claims of 25,000 to 2,000,000 people who had been exposed to asbestos.
In 1993, plaintiffs’ attorneys hoped to facilitate court approval of the settlement by first filing a proposed class action in Georgine v. Amchem Prods., Inc.
In the landmark asbestos case, former federal judge Edward R. Becker described asbestos exposure as “a tale of danger known about in the 1930s, [with] exposure inflicted upon millions of Americans in the 1940s and 1950s, injuries that began to take their toll in the 1960s, and a flood of lawsuits beginning in the 1970s.”
But the Amchem case would not provide a levy to halt the lawsuits. Ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court said the proposed class was too large and the claims were too varied.
The Court found that the proposed class action would not serve the interests of the plaintiffs. There would be no class action or global settlement.
The next efforts aimed at mass resolution of asbestos litigation were through federal legislation. Congress introduced a number of bills, including the Fairness in Asbestos Injury Resolution Act, to compensate the injured outside of court. But none of those measures had enough to momentum and support to become law.
Instead of disposing of a bunch of claims at once, MDL No. 875 developed procedures for handling “tag-along” cases on a claim-by-claim basis. A tag-along action involves factual questions similar to the questions involved in cases that were already transferred to the MDL.
Instead of trying to dispose of all of the cases at once, the court used special procedures to process each claim.
Court personnel in MDL No. 875 were specifically assigned to handle asbestos tag-along cases. They became familiar with the parties and issues in common in these actions and developed rules aimed at scheduling and processing the cases efficiently. The court’s rulings in previous, similar cases served as guidance for new tag-along cases.
Future of Tag-Along Cases
The federal judicial panel has decided that MDL No. 875 has largely accomplished its mission. Although the panel does not expect asbestos litigation to end in the near future, about 400 cases are currently filed in federal court each year. Rather than relying on single court, federal courts across the nation will now handle asbestos lawsuits.
During its lifetime, well over 100,000 claims in the MDL have been resolved or transferred to state courts. The presiding judge has dispensed with roughly 90% of his caseload and will keep 17,000 cases. Almost all of these cases are expected to be decided, settled or remanded to state court by the end of 2012. So for the near future, MDL No. 875 is not going anywhere.