What Is a Mass Tort?

The legal world is full of odd acronyms and terms, and it’s important to have some understanding of these terms in case you find yourself involved in any legal dispute. One of the most common terms you’ll encounter in legal proceedings is “tort.”

Understanding Torts

A tort is a civil wrongdoing committed by a person or party that results in some kind of harm to another. The person or party who commits a tort is a tortfeasor and assumes liability for the victim’s damages. This seems to mirror the definition of “plaintiff,” but that term is only used once a lawsuit begins. While a tort generally applies to one victim, a mass tort is a single tort resulting in injury to multiple victims.

Some of the most common types of mass tort cases include:

  • Dangerous drug claims. Many pharmaceuticals reach large numbers of patients before their dangerous natures come to light. The defendant committed one tort – endangering patients who use the drug – resulting in a mass tort claim from all of the injured parties. Some dangerous drug cases do not arise for years after the drug’s release because the effects take time to manifest. Most states have a two-year statute of limitations (time limit) for filing legal claims, but this may start on the date of discovery, or the date the injury or illness became apparent or adverse symptoms or side effects manifested.
  • Defective or dangerous product claims. Product manufacturers, assemblers, packagers, distributors, and retailers have a legal obligation to ensure the products they sell pose no unreasonable threat to consumers. If one particular product injures multiple consumers, the consumers would form a mass tort claim against the product manufacturer or other entity along the supply chain responsible for the injury-causing element.
  • Environmental torts. If a company releases toxic chemicals into the environment or causes another type of harm to an ecosystem they can potentially endanger thousands of lives. People who suffer illness or injury from oil leaks, contaminated water supplies, destroyed beaches, polluted ground water, air pollution, radiation, or other environmental hazards can join in a mass tort claim against the responsible entity.

Filing a Mass Tort Claim

Once a number of victims decide to sue a single common tortfeasor in one lawsuit, the victims’ lawyers must obtain the court’s permission to file a mass tort action. The court considers various factors before deciding whether or not to grant permission, including:

  • The number of victims involved in the case.
  • The location of the victims and how close they are to one another.
  • The similarity of the victims’ injuries or illnesses.
  • The commonality of the victims’ claims. The claims must be associated with a common cause. For example, a dangerous drug cause would only involve multiple victims of one dangerous drug, not multiple victims who suffered from various dangerous drugs. Victims in such a case would have to file their own claims for their unique damages.

If the court approves the mass tort action it will quickly reach a judge. In some cases, a judge may release the details of the case to the press so other victims may join the mass tort action if they have suffered similar damages to those included in the mass tort action.

It’s vital to recognize the distinction between a mass tort action and a class action. In a class action, multiple plaintiffs pool into one lawsuit against a common defendant and receive one result, which the plaintiffs split equally. In a mass tort action, each claimant has an individual claim with distinct damages and each claimant receives his or her own trial. Recovery for victims in mass tort actions is often much higher than that of class actions. Additionally, mass tort actions often proceed quickly because the trial preparation and investigation for each case typically applies to others. If you’re curious whether or not you would qualify for a mass tort action, speak with a Long Island mass tort lawyer about your situation.