What is a Mass Tort and How Do Courts Handle Them?

A mass tort occurs when a single instance of negligence causes injury to a large number of people. Mass torts are common in cases involving common carriers — a plane crash for instance. But mass tort litigation has also become common in cases involving product liability. Mass torts can be a serious drain on judicial resources by forcing courts to repeatedly re-litigate essentially the same case. They can also pose a threat to judicial integrity should two essentially identical cases end in different results. For these reasons, state and federal courts frequently take a special approach to these types of cases.

The first approach is the class action lawsuit. This is where a small number of plaintiffs initiate litigation on behalf of a large class of similarly injured parties. The class members need not be individually identified and have minimal participation in the process. This type of case is most appropriate where a large number of people suffered a fairly minor loss.

The second approach is consolidated litigation in which the court takes numerous individual lawsuits and consolidates them into a single action. In the federal system, the United States Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation is responsible for regulating this process and frequently consolidates cases across several judicial districts or even states. This type of litigation is more appropriate for serious personal injuries — such as vaginal mesh, Pradaxa® and Actos® litigation. The plaintiffs are individually identified and closely participate in the litigation process but do so under special procedures that promote efficiency and uniformity while preserving judicial resources.