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What Is a "Bellwether" Trial?

Recently it seems like we’re seeing more and more dangerous product lawsuits, and the verdicts and results are only getting bigger and covering a broader range of customers than ever before. The Johnson & Johnson talcum powder lawsuits and Takata airbag fiasco are just two of the most prominent ones, with many others still out there as well. With so many people being affected as a part of these defective products, you can probably imagine just how many lawsuits these manufacturers are facing: it’s not a small number.

But if courts were required to try each case individually from start to finish, it would take years or even decades to get through them all. Serious personal injury lawsuits can take months to finish, and the process only slows down when courts become packed and resources become scarce. How can things be sped along so that more cases can be completed and more people get the justice they deserve after suffering a serious injury from defective products?

The answer lies in the concept of a “bellwether” trial, and on this blog, we’ll discuss what these cases are and how they play a significant impact on your case if you’re one of many people who is attempting to hold a manufacturer liable for their dangerous products.

The Origins of the Term “Bellwether”

Back in the 13th century, farmers needed a way of being able to find their flock of sheep as they freely roamed the land, so they came up with the idea of tying a bell around the “wether”, a male sheep that the flock would tend to follow. Thus, the “bellwether” became the sheep that was indicative of the location of the flock’s movement.

Over time, the term evolved to mean an event indicative of future trends, and was officially added to the legal lexicon in 1972. In legal terms, a “bellwether” is a trial which will serve as a foundation for future trials of the same nature.

The Bellwether Process

In order to better understand how bellwether trials can affect your case, let’s take a look at an example. Say you have suffered from ovarian cancer as a result of years of talcum powder use, and wish to hold Johnson & Johnson accountable for withholding information about the risk of doing so. Well, you’re not the only one who wishes to do that, in fact there are dozens of cases waiting to be tried in court districts all across the country.

In these instances, courts may wish to bring the cases into what is known as Multi-District Litigation (MDL), which is when cases from multiple districts are all brought to one venue. A panel of seven judges from district courts choose which cases to bring to the MDL venue and then serve as the “bellwether” cases. Usually, the cases will all be similar in nature, such as a group of people who all wish to sue Johnson & Johnson for damages related to contracting ovarian cancer. Cases are sometimes categorize into even more specific groups based on a few extenuating circumstances that may be aren’t common across all cases but still seen fairly frequently.

Once the categories are all established, attorneys from both sides and the judge work together to create a “representative” pool of cases that covers as large a range of issues as possible, and there’s an important reason for this: these cases will serve as examples for all cases in the same category in the future.

Once the pool of cases is determined, the cases are brought back to the MDL venue for pre-trial proceedings, which include things like discovery, submission of evidence, and exchanging of briefs, expert witness testimony, and much more. These pre-trial proceedings are then used essentially as a guide to expedite future cases.

For example, many of the talcum powder lawsuits point to some of the same studies in order to show the link between the product and ovarian cancer. Bellwether trials determine that the study is acceptable for submission as evidence, and that way all cases that fit the same category can then use that study as evidence in their own case without having to submit it again at their own pre-trial proceedings. This creates what’s often known as a “trial package,” which can be used by your own lawyer in their preparation and proceedings to help you fight for your case.

Once pre-trial proceedings are completed at the MDL venue, the cases are sent back to their local courts for full trial. Cases which are dismissed or settled out of court before a full verdict is reached are replaced with a different case from a prepared backlog of bellwether cases.

Find out more about how bellwether proceedings can affect your case by speaking with the Martin County injury lawyers at Lauri J. Goldstein & Associates, PLLC today! Call us at (866) 675-4427 for an initial case evaluation.