The purpose of this article is to extensively assesses mass tort cases in the United States. The article sets about defining “tort” and legal rights with help of suitable examples and landmark case laws. The various influencing factors in the arena of mass tort and difficulties faced therein. Backing the same with additional landmark case laws on mass tort and rules applied therein.
A tort is a wrongful or unlawful act that violates the legal rights of a person. Let us first discuss few definitions to understand the more exclusive meaning of a tort.
- According to Fraser: A tort is an infringement of the right of a private individual giving a right of compensation at the suit of the injured party.
- According to Dr Winfield: Tortious liability arises from breach of duty primarily fixed by law. This duty is towards persons generally and its breach is redressable by an action for unliquidated damages.
Examples of Tort cases:
- Breach of contract
- Trespass of property
In precise words, a tort is a civil wrong. The definition is immaterial than the subjective and purposive matter of tort cases. It is important for the larger part of the population to know and understand their legal rights and there also exists the need to tackle the obstacle faced in the arena of tort. Educating people, building active consciousness among the citizens, by providing people with a voice to fight for their valuable rights. “The Rainmaker” written by John Grisham (Case involving a multibillion-dollar insurance company). “A Civil Action” written by Johnathan Harr and played by John Travolta which details environmental mass tort cases.
Apprehension of Legal Rights with help of few landmark UK Legal Right cases
- In Acton vs Blandell, the defendants were had dug a coal mine on his land because of this the water going to the well of the Plaintiff was interrupted and his well became dry. Court held defendants not liable as they were exercising their legal rights on their land.
- In the case of Bradford Corporation vs Pickles, the plaintiff (corporation) had been deriving water from the adjoining land of the defendant. The defendant dug a pond on his land which diminished the water flowing to the land of the plaintiff. The defendants had maliciously done it so that the corporation would purchase their land at an exorbitant price. The plaintiff sued for damages and asked Court to issue an injunction to restrain the defendant from digging the shaft. The House of Lords held that the defendant was not liable. The Court stated, “The plaintiffs had no cause of action.“
- In the case of Ashby vs White, the plaintiff was a voter in a parliamentary election. The defendant who was the returning officer wrongfully refused to accept his vote. Nevertheless, the candidate who the voter wanted to elect had won the elections. The plaintiff sued the defendant for damages. The defendant contended that the plaintiff had suffered no damages as his candidate had won the elections. The Court held that the defendant was liable to pay damages to the plaintiff as they violated their legal rights – that is “Right to vote” – whether the plaintiff suffered any loss or not.
The concept of tort is broad in nature and even broader when we talk about mass tort cases. Mass tort cases as the name suggest includes injury to a larger group of people. Actively illustrating injury caused to many individuals all at once. It is the grouping of individual’s lawsuits alleging a common issue.
Various factors involved in mass tort cases:
- Commonality of issue
- Jurisdiction (multidistrict litigation),
- Class action,
- Class of individuals affected,
- Reasonable care whether taken or not by the defaulting party,
- Imposing liability on the defaulting party/ (aggregate liability),
- Multiple defendants,
- Remedies / compensation,
- Rules and laws applicable therein
Common types of Mass Tort cases
- Medical (Prescription drug injuries) and others,
- Product liability injuries,
- Toxic contamination,
- Natural disasters.
A tort is also known as personal injury, allowing an injured person to file a lawsuit in court and get a legal remedy for all losses incurred resulting from any incident. Civil wrongs can go uncompensated when individuals cannot afford to sue their allegations against big corporations alone.
Mass tort plaintiffs live in different and separate geographic locations. If a corporation sells a product nationwide and hypothetically stating customers in all 50 states will detriment as a result. Each plaintiff will file an individual lawsuit, which will flood the court system with overwhelmed cases of similar nature. This is where moss tort litigation comes into the picture. Mass tort cases aim to consolidate all the similar nature cases into one whole case. Further to compensate each redressed individual accordingly.
Depending on the facts and circumstances of each case. A person will have a valid injury claim against another party. The below-mentioned case will highlight the same.
- A landmark case, of Borel vs v. Fibreboard Paper Prod. Corp, which is a product liability case involves an asbestos manufacturer’s duty to warn industrial insulation workers of dangers associated with the use of asbestos. Clarence Borel, an industrial insulation worker, sued certain manufacturers of insulation materials containing asbestos. Borel claimed for recovery of damages for injuries caused by the defendant. Which was failing to warn the dangers involved in handling asbestos. Borel alleged that he had contracted the diseases of asbestosis and mesothelioma because of his exposure to the defendant’s products. The jury returned the verdict in favour of Borel based on strict liability. They further acknowledged the greater health risk involved in asbestos.
“The plaintiff sought to hold the defendants liable for negligence, gross negligence, and breach of warranty or strict liability. Key points of the case stated below:
- Failure to take reasonable precautions or to exercise reasonable care to warn Borel of the danger of asbestos.
- Failure to inform Borel for safe and sufficient wearing apparel and proper protective equipment,
- The defendant also failed to inform the petitioner on methods used in handling various asbestos products,
- Failure to test the asbestos products to ascertain the dangers involved in their use; and
- Failure to remove the products from the market upon ascertaining that such products would cause asbestosis. The plaintiff also alleged that the defendants should be strictly liable in warranty and tort. The plaintiff contended that the defendants’ products were unreasonably dangerous. Since the defendant failed to provide adequate warnings of the foreseeable dangers associated with them.
The defendants denied the allegations in the plaintiff’s complaint and interposed the defences of contributory negligence and assumption of risk. The defendant also stated that Borel had been contributorily negligent.
The jury found that all the defendants were liable and determined that the total damages were $79,436.24. Since four defendants originally named in the complaint had previously settled, they paid a total of $20,902.20. The trial court held the remaining six defendants jointly and several liable for the balance of $58,534.04.”
- Under Texas law, a manufacturer of a defective product may be liable to a user or consumer in either warranty or tort and concerning personal injuries caused by a defective product, the Texas Supreme Court has adopted the theory of strict liability in tort as expressed in section 402A of the Restatement (Second) of Torts (1964).
- In a similar case of Motors LLC vs. Manville Pers. Injury Settlement Trust (In re Johns – Manville Corp.), which was related to asbestos health litigation. The owner of the company had obtained a patent for an asbestos insulation product. This led to the establishment of his entire business. This company is also the largest manufacturer and distributor of asbestos-containing products.
- In the case of Karjala vs Johns Manville Products Corp, the Court held that the statute of limitations for asbestos injuries begins to run at the time of discovery.
- In the case of Davis v. Wyeth Laboratories, Inc., the defendant manufacturer sold polio vaccine without warning of the statistical risk that one person in a million would contract polio by taking the vaccine. The court held that the manufacturer had a duty to warn the consumer of the risks involved. The failure to render the drug ‘unfit’ and ‘unreasonably dangerous’ within the meaning of section 402A. That is, by full disclosure of the existing risks involved.”
The other part being the customer awareness of the ill effects of the product but continues to consume it anyway. Contributory negligence – where there is ignorance by both the parties).
- Held in the case of Helene Curtis Industries, Inc vs. Pruitt, stated, “Thus, a product is unreasonably dangerous only when it is ‘dangerous to an extent beyond that contemplated by the ordinary consumer who purchases it.”
- In the case of Alcock vs Chief Constable of South Yorkshire Police, a leading English tort law case on liability for nervous shock(psychiatric injury). The case centred upon the liability of the police for nervous shock suffered in consequence of the events of the Hillsborough disaster. The Hillsborough disaster occurred at the Hillsborough Football Stadium, Sheffield during the FA Cup Semi-Final in which 96 spectators were killed and 450 injured in a human crash. The South Yorkshire Police had admitted liability in negligence for the deaths, having allowed too many supporters into the stadium. The Court also further stated about “duty of care” in each individual cases.
The below cases discuss the complexities of multiple district mass tort case:
- In the case of Dalkon Shield Claimants’ Trust Facility, “in this case, H. Robins – The Robin’s Plan of Re-organization “The Plan” established as a settlement fund with more than $2.3 billion. The same was to compensate thousands of personally injured women and men. The same who have claimed injuries resulting from the use of the Dalkon Shield Intrauterine Device. A contraceptive where the Dalkon company promoted and sold an alternate choice to birth control pills.
- By the fall of 1975, Robins faced 286 complaints and could foresee the coming crush of cases. Eventually, a federal Multidistrict Litigation Panel (“MDL”) assisted with all the Dalkon Shield cases. The MDL ultimately transferred the federal Dalkon Shield cases to the District Court of Kansas for pretrial proceedings under 28 U.S.C. § 1407 (1988).
- Various federal Dalkon Shield cases were transferred to the Northern District of California. By the end of 1979, thousands of cases were pending nationwide. The District Court in California tried what at that time was a novel approach: After realizing that each Dalkon Shield case would take at least a week to try and realizing the potentially huge exposure (estimated to be well over Robins’ net worth because of the claims for punitive damages), the court certified a nationwide class under Rule 23(b)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure on the issue of punitive damages, and a California class under Rule 23(b)(3) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure on the issues of liability and compensatory damages.
- Southern District of New York filed a securities class action which was settled for $6.9 million. Robins’ allegedly misrepresented and failed to disclose other information about the Dalkon Shield financial statements. Meanwhile, the number of lawsuits against Robins continued to increase. Although Robins won many jury verdicts in early cases, plaintiffs started to win, and win big.
- In May 1985, a jury in the Tetuan case in Kansas awarded monetary damages of $1.75 million and $7.5 million. Although Robins and Aetna, its insurer, had disposed of 9,500 suits and had paid out approximately $530 million, some 6,000 cases were still pending.”
- In the case of Agent Orange Product Liability Litigation, a class action which charged US Government and chemical industries due to deaths and horrifying injuries to many Vietnam veterans who came in contact with chemicals used in war and severe birth defects of children of such veterans who were exposed to such toxic contamination. A conclusive settlement was eventually agreed upon. Key points of this case stated below:
- Whether the case against the industry should be settled or not? Since the judiciary found it difficult to divide compensation amongst the claimants,
- Countrywide hearing of victims and witnesses done, thereby providing an opportunity to be heard to such variant class of people so affected,
- Uncertainties and legal obstacles faced by both the Court and the injured parties,
- Finally consolidating all the delayed litigations and approving settlement,
- Medical, monetary damages and other facilities to be provided were a major topic of discussion.
Applicable Rule of Law
The United States of America (USA) comprises fifty states due to which the USA’s legal system is divided into two separate courts: Federal and State Courts. The differences between them are that they are defined mainly by jurisdiction, which refers to the types of cases a court is allowed to examine.
Mass tort cases involve allegations of tortious misconduct affecting numerous and diverse people. Since they are complex in nature, identifying the right jurisdiction and laws applicable therein for each case of mass tort varies. The approach towards the applicability of choice of law is therefore very crucial to understand. Since it is very common where mass tort cases constantly get transferred from one Federal Court to another.
- A mass tort can be transferred to different federal courts provided there is minimal diversity and the same is consolidated for hearing,
- Each state has its own law and there will always be some percentage of constitutional restraint when there is a diverse class of people involved,
In both cases of Erie Railroad Co. vs Tompkins, and Klaxon Co. vs Stentor Electric Manufacturing Co, stated that the Federal Court hearing different cases should apply substantive laws of the state but in cases where the Court is serving a nationwide function it is impossible to be bound by the conflicting laws of a single state.
“In the case of Ferens v. John Deere Co, where the Supreme Court held that the convenience objectives advanced by a transfer of venue should not “deprive parties of state law advantages that exist absent diversity jurisdiction,” and that such transfer “does not change the law applicable to a diversity case.” Nor should it matter that it was the plaintiff who initiated the transfer since the defendant does not lose any advantage thereby; the same law applies as would apply if the plaintiff had not initiated the transfer.
Illustration: California passengers boarded the plane in California, Michigan passengers boarded it in Michigan, and it crashed on take-off from the Detroit airport killing all aboard. The allegation was that the crash was due to a defect in the landing gear. California law favours plaintiffs, while Michigan and New York law favours manufacturers. Under jurisdiction rules, California law cannot constitutionally be applied to Michigan survivors. Thus, the only law of a designated single jurisdiction that could be applied would be the law of Michigan or New York, both of which favour manufacturers. If the survivors of the California residents sue in California, California will undoubtedly apply its plaintiff-favouring rule. To avoid this result, under H.R. 3406, the manufacturer may have the case transferred to a federal court, which is compelled to apply the New York or Michigan manufacturer-favouring rule.”
In the light of understanding how various laws are applied in cases and based on the jurisdiction of the Court how each case is handled can be seen in the case of Nagler vs Admiral Corporation, which is an antitrust and price discrimination action for injunction and damages by thirteen retailers in the greater New York area of radio, television, and electrical appliances. It is brought against twenty-six defendants, of whom twenty-four are “suppliers” that is manufacturers, wholesalers, and distributors and two are retailers operating chain stores in this area. The case was founded upon the allegations that these two defendants -retailers, Davega Stores Corporation and Vim Televisions and Appliance Stores, Inc., received special price concessions from the supplier defendants. The complaint is in twenty-nine paragraphs and three counts, or “causes of action” as they are labelled. The first cause is for the defendant’s discrimination against the plaintiffs in violation of the Robinson-Patman Act; while the other causes, reincorporating the allegations of the first are for violations of the Sherman Act. Ten of the defendants joined in a motion to dismiss for improper pleading under Federal Rules of Civil procedure, Rule 8 9a) and €, and for misjoinder of parties, alternatively they asked for the relief under F.R. 10 (b), 12 (e), and (f) that is for separate statements as to each defendant, and a more definite statement and striking parts of the complaint. Other defendants moved for more definitive statements. The court stated that such motions were not before them and nor did the defendants appear as appellees. In its opinion, the court granted dismissal which was under their specific powers to do so and dismissed the complaints of all the other defendants.
Among other deficiencies in mass tort cases, is the question of which law applies in which state. As long as there is a single choice of law available to cater to all mass tort litigants.
It is common for the majority of the population to not be aware of their legal and constitutional rights. The complexities faced in the legal system makes it further a tedious task for an average individual to understand them all. Therefore, having an idea of your basic legal rights and understanding the law will provide you with prospects of improving your life. In addition to this, one will be capable to enjoy maximum privileges guaranteed under the law. For example protection against domestic violence or compensation for unfair wages, to name a few.
Mass tort cases involve thousands of personally injured plaintiffs and attract multiple defendants. The perplexities of the complex legal system involved, and unique issues therein faced by courts. From the defendants’ point of view – a major financial loss suffered and from the plaintiff’s point of view – it is waiting for an endless year for compensation. Mass settlement of aggregate claims is easier, quicker, and simpler to avoid delay and prolong the case to go on for continuous and subsequent years.
As the famous legal maxim goes, “Ubi Jus Ibi Remedium” where there is a right there is a remedy. Ensuring victims with assistance in protecting the community at large. Providing individual justice is the main goal in mass tort cases. Each mass tort case is extraordinary in nature, but the results of judgment of such cases are the same: a huge expense involved and reimbursing the victims.
 LAW OF TORTS WITH CONSUMER PROTECTION ACT AND MOTOR VEHICLES ACT, DR. J. N. Pandey, 9th edition, Central Law Publications.  Ibid.  (1848) 12 M & W 324.  (1895) AC 587.  (1703) 2 LD Ramonds 938.  https://law.justia.com/cases/federal/appellate-courts/F2/493/1076/4552/  Ibid.  Ibid 6.  571 B.R. 69 (Bankrs. S.D.N.Y. 2017)  https://casetext.com/case/in-re-johns-manville-corp-66  Ibid 2.  Ibid.  Ibid.  Wikipedia.  https://ir.lawnet.fordham.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3019&context=flr  475 F. Supp. 928 (E.D.N.Y. 1979)  304 U.S. 64, 58 S. Ct. 817 (1938).  313 U.S. 487 (more) 61 S. Ct. 1020; 85 L. Ed. 1477; 1941 U.S. LEXIS 1298; 49 U.S.P.Q. (BNA) 515  State Choice of Law in Mass Tort Cases: A Response to “A View from the Legislature”, Volume 73, Issue 4 Summer 1990, Marquette Law Review, Robert A Sedler and Aaron Twerski.  https://casetext.com/case/nagler-v-admiral-corporation