Tuesday, December 10, 2019
Since I published Mass Tort Deals: Backroom Bargaining in Multidistrict Litigation last May, I’ve received a lot of private emails from lawyers in the trenches who agree with my diagnosis of the problems in MDL. As the book details, incentives within multidistrict litigation tend to skew toward insiders’ self-interest, not the public interest or plaintiffs’ interests. Left unchecked, self-interest can takeover. And there are no checks. Consequently, there is an urgent need to improve the mass-tort system and its inhabitants as a whole.
Of course, in writing the book, I knew there would be backlash, particularly from those ensconced within the system who have much to lose from any change in the status quo. And judging from the latest review of my book on Amazon, it appears I’ve struck a nerve.
It comes from Ellen Relkin, a plaintiffs’ lawyer who served as co-lead counsel in DePuy ASR; lead and liaison counsel in Stryker; and on the court-appointed executive committee in Ortho Evra, Yasmin/Yaz, and Biomet.
To begin, I’d like to thank Ms. Relkin for taking time to review the book. I hope very much that it will lead to a dialog and a broader exchange of information, not just between the two of us, but between academics and practitioners more broadly. As my mentor, Richard Nagareda, impressed upon me, ours is a field that is driven deeply by what judges and lawyers do in real time, on the ground, not by what academics say to one another in lofty towers.
It was with that in mind that I began writing what eventually became Mass Tort Deals, which Relkin colorfully dubs a “book parading as empirical research.” It is the culmination of six-years worth of data collection on all the products-liability proceedings pending on the MDL docket as of May 2013, and its Appendix boils down all of that data into 41 pages of tables. All of the documents that I collected are freely available to the public and word searchable here. Whether you love, hate, or are completely indifferent to the book, you are welcome to make use of all of the data and documents without having to pay Pacer fees.
What to make of the data is, of course, open to various interpretations. Mass Tort Deals reflects my conscious choices both about how to present data in an inviting, accessible way, and which case studies and anecdotes might best convey key points. Those choices are based not only on the raw numbers (which are all disclosed), but on many hours of interviews with attorneys and judges as well as reading hundreds of motions, arguments, and court transcripts. Lawyers and judges who lived those proceedings will, invariably, have different opinions about their strengths and weaknesses, as Relkin’s critique demonstrates.
That brings me to Relkin’s specific comments, which I respond to briefly below:
- “The book is biased.”
Unfortunately, I’m not sure what this means. I don’t represent any clients, I don’t consult for lawyers on either side, and my funding comes entirely from my university (no private grants, etc.). I do have a perspective and an opinion from doing extensive research, but I am about as neutral as they come. As Relkin notes, on the other hand, she served as lead counsel in some of the mass tort deals that I criticize and, one presumes, has profited substantially from them.
- “[T]he book criticizes and makes incorrect assumptions without ever interviewing the lead counsel . . .”
As noted, I did speak with a number of plaintiffs’ attorneys on background (including those in DePuy ASR). Those lawyers asked not to be named for fear of retribution, which I describe in Chapter 3. Lance Cooper was the sole attorney who agreed to be interviewed “on the record.” Unlike the lawyers affected by, but not in control of the proceeding, lead lawyers’ positions tend to be apparent from reading the motions that they file and the arguments they make in a hearing’s transcripts.
Despite putting these proceedings under a microscope, however, some critical information just isn’t publicly available, as I note in the book’s Introduction. The terms of most private settlements remain private, and even for those that are publicly available, it is rare indeed to find information on substantive outcomes—who gets what, in other words.
More frustrating still are the many sealed documents. (Reuters has echoed this same frustration in a series of articles on opioids and Propecia.) DePuy ASR was a particularly opaque proceeding in that regard. The leaders, for example, sealed their common-benefit fee and cost awards (motions, orders, etc.). Why insist on secrecy in court-awarded attorneys’ fees?
This is one of the key concerns that I address in Mass Tort Deals: too little disclosure can lead to too much room for abuse of process. The information that is available suggests that there is a systemic lack of checks and balances in MDLs that may benefit insiders like lead plaintiffs’ attorneys, at their clients’ expense. In short, proceedings should be more transparent—deciding issues in secret breeds mistrust.
To that end, if you have data on substantive outcomes (who, exactly, gets what), please share it with me. I would love to know more about how much money is paid out and to whom, how long it takes to administer claims, whether like plaintiffs are treated equally, how much money it costs to put dollars in class members’ hands versus plaintiffs in private settlements, etc.
- “The book overlooks litigation challenges in some of the cases including the enormous costs of trying complex pharmaceutical and medical device cases, especially those with mild to moderate injuries, general and specific medical causation challenges, preemption issues, learned intermediary challenges, among other difficulties in some cases.”
Relkin is correct in that this book is about the procedures used to resolve cases, not substantive tort law. But to the heart of her concern, I discuss costs on pages 24-25, general and specific causation on pp. 112, 116, and 210. And I emphasize the pros and cons of bellwether trials on pp. 107-110.
- “Ms. Burch incorrectly attributes lead counsel in the DePuy ASR settlement, incorrectly interprets and describes features of the settlement, overlooks an enormous and virtually unprecedented benefits of the settlement . . ., incorrectly claims that the Extraordinary Injury Fund awards were unknown when in fact the scheduled award amounts were listed in an appendix to the settlement agreements that have been and are still on-line, among other errors.”
The only concrete thing I can find to respond to here is Relkin’s claim about the Extraordinary Injury Fund. As I observed on p. 140, the DePuy ASR settlements did estimate a claimant’s base award, but even after another search of the settlement’s website, I still don’t see any amounts actually paid out to clients listed anywhere. Of course, it’s certainly possible that I’ve missed something. So, here’s a link to the website if you’d like to dig in.
- “The two unhappy clients she quotes from a New York Times article are certainly not a representative sample. Using that standard, one could go on ‘Rate My Professor’, and while finding many good reviews of Professor Burch, would find some students who gave her unfavorable ratings.”
Okay, I couldn’t resist. It appears the last posting I received on “Rate My Professors” was in 2011 and of the 8 total posts, I received 7 “Awesome’s” and 1 “Good” (which still wrote “Great prof”). (Personally, I’m partial to the one that said “Amazing teacher. Funny, pretty, witty, and just downright brilliant,” but hey, maybe I am biased.)
More to the point, writing the book did make me realize that I needed to hear directly from plaintiffs, hence the Procedural Justice Study that I began over a year ago.
Relkin kindly mentions that “she would have been happy to share the many thank you notes from enormously grateful clients who fared very well,” so I hope that she and other plaintiffs’ lawyers will ask their Yasmin/Yaz and Ortho Evra clients to participate in the Procedural Justice Study as well as any clients they might have in the other covered women’s health proceedings: Pelvic Mesh, Talcum Powder, Mentor ObTape, Mirena, Norplant, Fen-Phen, Dalkon Shield, NuvaRing, Silicone Gel Breast Implants, Power Morcellator, Ephedra, Fosamax, Monat Hair Care, Rio Hair Naturalizer, Prempro, and Protegen Sling.
Please disseminate the survey link broadly to your clients; I absolutely want to hear from all of them. By way of background, the study does not ask for any confidential information (settlement or otherwise); the basic info it seeks include things that plaintiffs can readily find in their complaint. The study’s focus is on how plaintiffs feel about their experience with the justice system—the judges, the lawyers, etc.
My aim in this is to update and expand upon RAND’s 1989 Perception of Justice survey by identifying what litigants care about in the MDL context. I hope to hear from as many plaintiffs as possible (their names and any identifying information will be kept completely confidential).
Happy to hear from each of you, too. And if there are things I should know more about, consider this an open invitation to contact me.
Thursday, September 26, 2019
Over at our sister blog, Business Law Prof Blog, Professor Ben Edwards has been making his way through my recent book, Mass Tort Deals: Backroom Bargaining in Multidistrict Litigation. He does an excellent job of both summarizing and commentating on each chapter. So, if you just don't have the time to do a deep dive into a new book right now but want the quick and dirty takeaway alongside thoughtful, insightful commentary, here are the links to his posts so far:
Chapter 1 - Mass Tort Deal Making - on the nuts and bolts of class actions vs. multidistrict proceedings
Chapter 2 - Mass Tort Deals - on whether quid-pro-quo arrangements exist between lead plaintiffs' attorneys & defense lawyers
Chapter 3 - Mass Tort Deals - on repeat player dynamics in aggregate litigation (leadership appointments, etc.)
Chapter 4 - Mass Tort Deals - on judges coercing facilitating mass tort settlements
Chapter 5 - Mass Tort Deals - on the likeness between MDL deals and arbitration
Chapter 6, on reform proposals, will be coming next week.
If you're interested in all of the data and documents in the book, they are all available for free online. That site also has some data visuals that aren't in the book, like this one (clicking the image will bring up an interactive version):
September 26, 2019 in Aggregate Litigation Procedures, Asbestos, Books, Class Actions, Current Affairs, Ethics, Lawyers, Mass Disasters, Mass Tort Scholarship, Medical Devices - Misc., Pharmaceuticals - Misc., Procedure, Products Liability, Settlement, Trial, Vioxx | Permalink | Comments (0)
Thursday, January 12, 2012
Hermann asks why class action defense lawyers aren't bringing up Redish's arguments more in courtrooms across the nation. More thoughts on this later...in the meantime, I recommend his post.
Wednesday, January 4, 2012
The first is Mark Herrmann & David B. Alden, Drug And Device Product Liability Litigation Strategy (Oxford 2012).
The other is James M. Beck & Anthony Vale, Drug and Medical Device Product Liability Deskbook (Law Journal Press 2011)
Here's a post by Mark Herrmann reviewing both books. These promise to be very useful treatises.
Saturday, September 3, 2011
Snigdha Prakash has written an interesting book on the Vioxx litigation, "All the Justice Money Can Buy: Corporate Greed on Trial." The book follows the early course of the Vioxx litigation and then turns its attention to the Humeston/Hermans trial, during which Prakash was embedded with Mark Lanier and his trial team. Dramatic and well-written, and not shy about taking sides, the book is a great read and offers a rare inside look at the functioning of a trial team and the tensions that can arise among plaintiffs' lawyers in mass tort litigation.
Monday, March 29, 2010
Panel on Pluralism in Tort Law and Litigation at Annual Conference of the Association for the Study of Law, Culture and the Humanities
As previously mentioned, I was part of a panel on Pluralism in Tort Law and Litigation at the annual conference of the Association for the Study of Law, Culture and the Humanities, which took place on Saturday, March 20 at Brown University. Professor Alan Calnan (Southwestern) moderated the panel, and other participants included Professors Christopher Robinette (Widener) and Sheila Scheuerman (Charleston). Below are the abstracts and links to audio from the presentations and Q&A. Thanks to Alan Calnan for moderating and to all for participating.
I. Prof. Alan Calnan -- Introduction (audio)
II. Prof. Christopher Robinette -- "The Instrumentalism in Tort Reforms" (audio)
The traditional view among legal historians is that tort was largely deontic private law until the late nineteenth century. Due to factors such as the Industrial Revolution and the advent of liability insurance, tort became (more) instrumentalist. A survey of major tort reforms over the course of the last century provides evidence to support this view. Each of the reforms--workers' compensation, no-fault automobile insurance, products liability, and "modern" tort reforms (such as damage caps)--is based in instrumentalism. Furthermore, the reforms become increasingly integrated into tort law as time passed. The earliest reform, workers' compensation, was a substitute for tort law. By the time of the modern reforms, instrumentalism is operating within tort itself, and covers a multitude of tort cases.
III. Prof. Byron Stier -- ""Examining Litigant Autonomy in Mass Torts: Insights from the Individualism of Ayn Rand" (audio)
Class actions and other aggregate procedural methods raise questions about the relationship of the individual to the group. Litigant autonomy -- the litigant's interest in controlling his or her lawsuit -- has generally been considered merely one value among others in mass tort litigation, and only recently has a robust commitment to litigant autonomy been seen to call into question the entire structure of class action practice. In looking for insight into the proper place for litigant autonomy in class actions or other management methods, we might fruitfully turn to political debates concerning the relationship of the citizen to the state, for both settings examine the rights of the individual against the perceived needs of the group or collective. For discussion of that political question, I look to an unusual source -- outside law, to the literature of one known for her radical political individualism, Ayn Rand. Her novel, "We The Living," which was published in 1936 and is set in the aftermath of the communist revolution in Russia, puts forth a moral argument for individualism stemming from the sanctity of one's own life, and of one's control of one's own life, for one's own ends, not the group's; she also argues that personal tragedy and systemic corruption accompany an approach that fails to respect individuals' lives and choices. Turning back to mass tort litigation, I suggest that our notion of litigant autonomy can be informed by Rand's themes and that current class action rules show flaws similar to the collectivism that Rand critiques. Viewing litigant autonomy not merely as one value among others, but instead as an organizing principle that must be respected as a core right, I suggest that current class action rules regarding notice, opt-out, and settlement are problematic because they do not allow adequate expression of individual preference and they blunt each class member's individuality. In addition, by avoiding individual control, the current class action rules create fertile ground for corruption and collusive settlements.
IV. Prof. Sheila Scheuerman (audio)
In my presentation, I examine whether and when tort law should permit "no injury" claims -- claims where the plaintiff's harm has not yet materialized. Examples of these suits include medical monitoring actions, products liability claims where a known defect exists, but the product has not yet malfunctioned, as well as consumer fraud claims where the consumer's decision was not affected by the defendant's alleged misrepresentation. Recent years have seen an influx of these suits under an array of tort and contract theories. Traditionally, however, tort doctrine has premised liability on an injury to an identified party. But is "injury" a necessary pre-requisite? I address whether tort values support these "no injury" causes of action. In other words, should "no injury" claims be actionable under the varied rationales for the tort system and, if so, under what circumstances?
V. Questions and Answers (audio)
March 29, 2010 in Aggregate Litigation Procedures, Books, Class Actions, Conferences, Informal Aggregation, Lawyers, Mass Tort Scholarship, Procedure, Products Liability, Regulation, Settlement | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
Friday, January 22, 2010
Both the ABA Journal and Forbes have recently featured Professor Martin Redish's book, Wholesale Justice. As he points out in a comment to the ABA article, both pieces "somewhat overstate and simplify my position. I do not really suggest that class actions are inherently unconstitutional." The book itself is an interesting meld of class action theory, constitutional theory, and democratic theory. Although it's impossible to summarize the book in a short blog post, here's a quote from page 231 in which he recommends three pivotal changes:
The major constitutionally dictated changes would be (1) the settlement class action (i.e., a proceeding in which certification has been sought solely on the condition that the court approve a prearranged settlement) would be held to contravene the case-or-controversy requirement of Article III; (2) all mandatory classes, with the possible exception of the (b)(1)(A) category involving situations in which inconsistent behavior on the part of the party opposing the class toward individual class members would be either impossible or unduly oppressive, would be deemed violations of the Due Process Clause; and (3) the existing opt-out structure for (b)(3) classes would be found both to violate due process and to depart from key notions of democratic theory, except in situations in which the individual claims, though sufficiently large to reasonably justify the filing of a claim form as part of a settlement or judicial award, would be insufficiently large to justify individual suit.
For the interested reader, Sam Issacharoff has written a number of articles that provide a counterpoint to Redish's arguments.
Friday, September 4, 2009
My new book, Inside Civil Procedure: What Matters and Why, has been released by Aspen Publishers. Written for law students, it tries to explain the concepts of civil procedure in a comprehensible and engaging way. Readers of this blog won't be surprised that I couldn't resist mentioning MDL, mass settlements, and the difficulty of certifying mass tort class actions. Mostly, however, the book sticks to the basics. So if anyone's trying to understand personal jurisdiction or Erie or the ever-changing federal pleading standard ...