What Is A Mass Tort? Legal Definition And Examples – Forbes

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A mass tort occurs when many people are harmed by the same act or omission. All of those individual victims have claims against the same defendants arising out of the same circumstances. These cases can be combined in a class action or multidistrict litigation.

This guide explains what a mass tort is, when mass tort cases arise and how they work.

What Is a Mass Tort?

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Tort law allows victims who have been harmed by the negligence or wrongful acts of others to pursue a civil claim to recover monetary compensation or other equitable relief, such as an injunction.

Some kinds of torts affect just one person or a small group of people. Examples include car accidents or medical malpractice. But other torts affect many individuals—sometimes hundreds or even thousands of people who all suffer damage due to the same wrong.

Generally, people think of class actions when they think of many people suffering the same wrong and pursuing a legal remedy. In a class action, individual plaintiffs are grouped together in a single lawsuit, with one or more plaintiffs chosen as class representatives. Some mass torts stay in their original court and may be handled there as a class action.

But there’s also something called multidistrict litigation (MDL). In MDL, similar cases are grouped together to be decided in one court but retain their status as separate lawsuits. That means each plaintiff has to prove the elements of their case to prevail. However, most mass tort cases that go into MDL are resolved as class actions.

If you have been harmed by something that caused injury to many, you should get help from a mass tort lawyer to determine the best way to pursue your specific claim.


Examples of Mass Torts

Conventionally, attorneys and legal scholars have distinguished between two types of mass torts: single-site, single-event mass torts (such as airplane crashes or explosions); and true, dispersed mass torts involving thousands of persons spread out over time and place (such as product defect and pharmaceutical cases).

In each of these circumstances, one thing—the dangerous drug/product or explosion or plane crash—likely damaged dozens, hundreds or even thousands of people. Each of the individual victims has an independent legal right to pursue a claim with hopes of recovering monetary compensation from those responsible.


How Do Mass Tort Cases Work?

In the 21st century, mass tort cases are typically resolved through multidistrict litigation.

When many potential plaintiffs all suffer the same wrong and file lawsuits against the same defendant who harmed them, the cases may be moved to be heard before one judge. This resulting MDL streamlines the process of resolving the many cases that come up in mass tort situations and helps avoid inconsistent verdicts.

The MDL judge appoints a number of different committees, including an executive or steering committee of both plaintiff and defense lawyers, a motions committee and a discovery committee. These groups facilitate these various processes for all cases in the MDL.

Settlements in Mass Tort Cases

Cases in MDLs can be settled as a class action, where the class members must be given the opportunity to opt out and not be bound by the settlement. If the action in the MDL is settled through a non-class settlement, that constitutes a contract and each claimant can accept or reject the non-class settlement offer.

Bellwether Cases

An MDL judge may order bellwether trials. That means a small selection of representative cases in an MDL are chosen to be tried first, to give an idea of how the rest of the cases might play out. Bellwether trials often play an important role in settlement negotiations.


Are Mass Torts Different From Class Actions?

Although many people confuse mass torts and class actions, they are not the same thing. But they’re not mutually exclusive, either.

Mass torts can be and still are resolved as class actions. “Mass tort” merely refers to the substantive law governing large aggregations of claimants. Class action refers to the process of producing aggregate claims.

Most class members have very little or even no involvement in their case. They also have no decision-making power once they have agreed to become a member of the class. If plaintiffs become part of the class action, they are legally bound by whatever settlement agreement is reached or whatever a judge or jury decides.

Giving up control over a case is essential in a class action. Many people may not want to simply sit back and wait for their portion of a payment to come, without control over their case or the opportunity to push for more compensation.

Before agreeing to join a class, you should know the implications of your choice. An experienced class action lawyer can help.


Get Help With a Mass Tort Case

Mass tort cases can be complicated from the start. You need to make sure you have the right legal advice from a qualified attorney so you can protect your ability to get the compensation you deserve.

Contact a mass tort lawyer as soon as possible if something harmed you and you know or believe many others will be (or have been) damaged in the same way. Your attorney will assist you in choosing the best path forward to get your damages covered.


Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About Mass Torts

What are mass torts in a nutshell?

Mass torts are cases where a defendant has harmed or wronged many people through a similar action such as releasing a dangerous product or causing an explosion through negligence. Class litigation and multidistrict litigation are often used to resolve mass tort claims in order to streamline the process of hearing dozens, hundreds or even thousands of cases arising from the same issue.

What is an example of a mass tort case?

A mass tort case arises when the same wrongful act or omission has caused harm to many. It could be a single event at a single site, such as a plane crash, or it could be something spread out over place and time, such as groundwater contamination.

Is a mass tort a class action?

“Mass tort” describes the substantive law governing large aggregations of claimants.

Many mass tort cases are resolved as a class action, where one big case is brought to help all of the class members get compensation for a shared wrong. Class members have little or no involvement with court proceedings, although they must be given notice of any settlement and the right to opt out of the class and not be bound by any judgment or settlement.

And many mass tort cases are resolved through multidistrict litigation. Each potential plaintiff has their own case within multidistrict litigation, but the similar claims are heard by one judge who becomes familiar with the issues. Bellwether trials may take place to give all of the mass tort victims an idea of what their case is worth, but ultimately each plaintiff’s case remains separate.

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