Individual Suit or Class Action?

Many people assume that any large lawsuit with multiple plaintiffs is always a class action. But there is a difference and the distinction is important, especially in the context of pharmaceutical products liability litigation. Cases of this type frequently involve numerous plaintiffs and may proceed as either a class action or a consolidated multidistrict litigation (MDL). The course that is most appropriate depends greatly on the number of potential plaintiffs as well as the type of harm they suffered.

Federal trial courts, as well as most state courts, have special procedures in place that allow a small number of plaintiffs to assert the rights of a large class of similarly situated people through a class action lawsuit. In such cases, the named plaintiffs participate directly in the litigation process while the rest of the class members simply fill out a claim form and collect a small portion of the eventual verdict or settlement. Class actions are most appropriate in cases that involve very large numbers of claimants — often in the thousands — because the class members do not need to directly participate. For the same reason, class actions are also more appropriate in cases where the harm each class member suffered is comparatively small.

The second course that pharmaceutical litigation frequently takes is consolidated litigation or multidistrict litigation. This usually occurs when numerous individual plaintiffs file separate lawsuits alleging similar facts and the court system elects to consolidate them as a single case. Pharmaceutical cases of this type can have up to several hundred plaintiffs. But unlike class actions, each plaintiff is individually identified and participates directly in the litigation process. This type of claim may be more appropriate in cases where plaintiffs suffered a higher degree of harm, such as in current Pradaxa® litigation, which has been consolidated in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Illinois.

Could the Recent Meningitis Outbreak Lead to Litigation?

Pharmaceutical litigation most frequently occurs when drug companies fail to adequately test medications prior to release or fail to properly inform consumers of the potential side effects. In these cases, the drugs are manufactured properly but the drugs themselves are flawed. But pharmaceutical litigation can also occur when good drugs are improperly manufactured, resulting in sickness and injury to the people who use them.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is currently investigating a multi-state outbreak of fungal meningitis that has been linked to a certain type of steroid injection. As of October 20, there have been 284 confirmed cases of fungal meningitis following steroid injections, with most cases occurring in Tennessee and Michigan, and at least one confirmed case in Illinois. This outbreak has led to 23 deaths. And because as many as 14,000 people may have received these injections, the numbers are expected to rise.

The steroid injections in question are not a new or novel treatment, as doctors frequently use similar injections to treat joint and back pain. In this particular case, however, a number of injections appear to have become contaminated with the fungus Exserohilum rostratum during the manufacturing process. The contaminated specimens have been traced to the New England Compounding Center in Framingham, Massachusetts. Lawsuits in this matter will likely begin to appear once more information surfaces regarding how the vials became contaminated. In the meantime, the contaminated lots have been recalled as doctors work to contact patients who may have been exposed.