The False Promise of MDL Bellwether Reform: How Mandatory Bellwether Trial Consent Would Further Mire Multidistrict Litigation
Over one third of all pending cases in the federal court system are part of a Multidistrict Litigation (MDL) proceeding. Previous and ongoing MDLs include claims stemming from the opioid epidemic, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the National Football League concussion cases, and a myriad of pharmaceutical and medical products liability suits. Both the percentage and sheer number of cases utilizing this form of aggregate litigation have dramatically increased in recent years. Bellwether trials, designed to test the facts and legal theories underpinning many of the consolidated cases, are a key feature of MDLs in facilitating resolution. This Note examines the role of MDL bellwether trials and the potential impact of proposed reforms. Part I surveys the functions of bellwether trials as well as current judicial limitations imposed on the practice. Part II examines proposals that would further restrict the use of MDL bellwether trials: first, a bill from the 115th Congress and second, proposed amendments to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. These proposals would require the consent of all parties for an MDL bellwether to ensue. Finally, Part III explores the potential effects of these proposed reforms as well as the discrepancies between their purported aims and the likely impact of their enactment. These proposals would exacerbate the MDL “black hole,” result in less informed settlements, and create more opacity in the MDL process. Principally, they are an attempt to wrest power over procedure to cement defendants’ structural advantage over the MDL.