Mass Tort Law, commonly referred to as class action law, represents a part of personal injury law but can be litigated in diverse practice areas. Some of these areas may include defective drugs, antitrust law, employment discrimination law, product liability law, and insurance law. Due to the wide variety of areas, various laws are governing this area at both the federal level and the state levels. Essentially, a tort refers to a civil wrongdoing committed by a person or a company that results in injuries experienced by another person or a customer after consuming the product or service (Macey & Miller, 2012). When an individual or a group of people commit a tort, they are legally liable for the damage, which a victim (in most cases their customer) endures. Therefore, a mass tort is a civil offense that results in a situation where more than one person suffers injuries, and, thus, several plaintiffs accuse the same defendant. Therefore, mass tort involves a larger number of claimants hereafter referred to as plaintiffs with common claims concerning a single product or drug, unfair business practice, disaster, and toxic tort or environmental tort (Macey & Miller, 2012). In most cases, the participants are spread out geographically but share a common damage or injury. In cases where the legal issues and facts turn out to be similar, the plaintiffs are at liberty to join and bring one strong legal claim against the party accused of being responsible for the tort. This essay considered the seat belt manufacturing company, since the plaintiffs alleged that the seat belts were defective and did not meet the preliminary precaution principle.
Mass Tort Claim Definition
A tort is a civil (as opposed to a criminal) wrong committed by one person that results in injury to another person. (A corporation is considered a legal person.) The person who commits the tort is legally responsible (or, liable) for the harm suffered by the victim (Hylton 2014).
Therefore, the victims of the tort are considered the plaintiff or the claimant, while the involved corporation is regarded as the defendant. Typically, the claimants sue the defendant to obtain monetary compensation for the wrongs committed by the respondent through either action or inaction (Hylton 2014). Moreover, mass tort is considered a single tort, which has caused injuries to many victims, who have decided to seek compensation from one or several defendants (Hylton 2014). The product refers to the item or service produced by the sued company that is perceived by the plaintiff to be the cause of their injuries or damages.
Classification of Mass Tort Claims
Ideally, they are two significant and most frequent categories of mass tort, but it does not mean that all cases, which qualify as mass tort, have to fall within either of the two types. Therefore, these two categories represent two observable groupings based on the nature of the product involved. In fact, that means there is no legislation at both the states level and the federal levels that classifies mass tort into either consumer product claims or pharmaceutical claims.
Consumer Products Claims: plaintiffs sue seeking compensation for injuries or deaths caused by the use of individual products.
Pharmaceutical Claims: Plaintiffs sue the person who committed a tort based on the harm posed by the product they manufactured that in this case is limited to either over-the-counter drugs or the medications prescribed by a doctor in a legally registered hospital.
Mass Tort Settlement
As mentioned above, mass tort settlement occurs after determination of a case where the plaintiff sues a manufacturer for a defective product, which has caused injuries. In some cases, it involves suing big companies accused of showing a pattern of discriminating actions that have caused damage to many employees, clients, job applicants, customers among others (Hylton 2014). These types of lawsuits also can refer to complaints filed by a group of people about a single specific incident, such as a train accident leading to many fatalities and injuries. Such actions are considered to be representative in nature, because only few claimants are named in the suit, but their names represent also other people, who share the same qualities used to define the class (Hylton 2014). After the class action is successful litigated, all other individuals who believe they qualify to be among representatives are given a certain period to assert their claims for determination (Davis, 2014). Subsequently, those found to qualify to be within the group are included in the damage and injuries settlement packages (Davis, 2014). However, members of the class have the option to take the determined compensation package or opt out and pursue their settlement particularly if they feel they can get a better deal (Davis, 2014).
Difference between a Mass Tort LawSuit and a Class Action Lawsuit
More often than not, people are familiar with the term Class Mass action but are less familiar or completely unfamiliar with the term Mass Tort. It is understandable, since identifying the difference between the two types of cases can be rather confusing (Davis, 2014). However, Class Action id a type of legal action where a lawyer files a lawsuit on behalf of an entire group of people who have been experiencing similar unfortunate circumstances, injuries or damages by the same defendant (Macey & Miller, 2012). Class Action Proceedings are primarily designed with the intention of reducing the number of court litigation that may arise when a large number of people go through harm because of the same problem (Macey & Miller, 2012). A good example is a situation when a supermarket or electronic retailer store is accused of overbilling all customers who paid through their credit card. In such case, class action lawsuit provides a leeway for the court to resolve all claims, basing on one single complaint. Although such measures have been termed useful for the corporate initiation change, the victims sometimes do not share the same sentiment because of the pittance they receive at the end of the procedure as compensation for their damages (Macey & Miller, 2012).
Considering that the people involved in a class may have experienced damage in a different magnitude, a class action lawsuit must meet certain criteria that seek to ensure fairness in damage compensation. In most cases, people who are within the class may not be aware of the legal proceeding (Macey & Miller, 2012). Therefore, the first criteria that must be met involve sending a notification message to all the involved people calling their attention to the existence of the suit and explaining to them that they can opt out of the proceeding and or join it by hiring a private counsel to represent their interest (Macey & Miller, 2012). Moreover, before a class action lawsuit can be procedurally filed for litigation in any court, a motion must be submitted prior to the tribunal where the plaintiff seeks to act on behalf of all the people within the group or class and who does not opt for private counsel (Macey & Miller, 2012). However, the individual compensation for the circumstance is not worth the time and tmoney that complaints spend to hire an attorney on a case-by-case basis (Hylton 2014). It is also required of the plaintiff to prove that his or her experience with the product or company accused of causing harm to the class is similar to the experience of all other plaintiffs in the same lawsuit (Hylton 2014). Moreover, the plaintiff is required to qualify and prove that this type of lawsuits is the most ideal to hold the defendants accountable (Hylton 2014). Lastly, the plaintiff must demonstrate that the evidence against the defendants is contextually similar across the board and that any further proceeding with individual lawsuits is a waste of courts resources, since it is neither prudent nor cost-effective (Hylton 2014).
Despite the Mass Tort Lawsuits are slightly different, the motivations behind the two styles of litigation converge in one point. Similarly to class action lawsuits, mass tort claims also attempt to ensure prudence and cost-effectiveness through the reduction of the number of court proceedings in the system (Macey & Miller, 2012). However, mass tort cases are handled differently, encompassing a much broader range of claims, which through deduction can mean that Class Action suits represent one of the subcategories under the umbrella Mass Tort Claims (Macey & Miller, 2012). Consequently, Mass Tort Claims are typically brought in cases where the consumers are injured on a wide scale by defective drugs or products (Macey & Miller, 2012). The fact that drugs and seat belts defects have the potential to cause a diverse range of injuries to different individuals and at different magnitude means that it is essentially impossible to make all cases fit under a single class to be considered as class action lawsuit (Macey & Miller, 2012).
Consequently, Mass Tort litigation allows a group of attorneys or in some cases one attorney to represent several injured parties in separate cases (Macey & Miller, 2012). This guide to a legal setup makes it possible for the lawyers to share their evidence related to the different cases (Macey & Miller, 2012). Therefore, a nationwide network of lawyers can decide to pool their resources, ideas, and information to ascertain that all injured individuals receive fair settlement based on the level of their injuries caused by the defective product or defective drugs (Macey & Miller, 2012). Based on the broadness of mass tort lawsuits, it can rationally be concluded that they are more complicated comparing to class action lawsuits primarily because their structure more often than not fails to follow the standard, predictable effectual procedure (Macey & Miller, 2012).
Permission to File Mass Tort Action
The following factors are considered by the court before granting the plaintiffs lawyers the authorization to file a mass tort action. Among other things, the court considers:
- Whether the number of plaintiffs involved qualifies for a mass tort action
- Whether the plaintiffs are situated close or far from one another.
- The similarities and differences of the injury or injuries suffered by the plaintiffs (Macey & Miller, 2012).
Whether the claims presented by the plaintiffs are associated with a common cause, for instance, the same kind of medication, products or disasters.
Therefore, a claim cannot be assigned to a judge before it is determined whether the case qualifies for mass tort action based on the above and other legal standards (Macey & Miller, 2012). After that, the judge is assigned with the claims that meet the minimum threshold for a mass tort action, and he is at liberty to order a publication of the lawsuits in a newspaper, inviting other people who have experienced a similar damage to join the suit if they wish to (Macey & Miller, 2012). As observed above, a mass tort action differs from a class action, since in the first case each claimant receives his or her trial, whereas in a class action, the plaintiffs are not considered individually but are joined in one trial, which ends with one similar verdict for all the victims within the same class (Davis, 2014). It is advantageous for a plaintiff to take part in mass tort litigation because of the vastly increased efficiency and the ability to transfer investigation and preparation from one trial to the other (Davis, 2014).
Defective Seat Belt Scenarios
Definition of Faulty Seat Belts
Seat belt also referred to as safety belt refers to the tool designed by car manufacturers to secure the occupants of the car against adverse movements that may result from sudden stop or collision (Hylton 2014). As part of the overall seat-occupant system, seat belts are supposed to prevent the passenger from being thrown forward in case of a car crash. Therefore, if the seat belts mechanism fails to deploy during a collision, the occupant of that seat is entitled to compensation for the injuries sustained as a result of a defective seat belt (Hylton 2014). Currently, majority of American buckle up due to the enactment of the mandatory seat belt laws, but their safety is not always guaranteed since some seat belt designs work poorly and sometimes do not work at all (Hylton 2014). Unfortunately, millions of vehicles on the road have defective safety belts systems produced by the manufacturers and are incapable of offering a reasonable protection, or fulfil their function (Spector, 2016). Although a seat belt is not expected to stop the first collision involving two vehicles or a vehicle and an object, it is expected to stop or minimize the second collision that occurs milliseconds after the first and involves the passengers and the widescreen or other interior parts of the vehicle (Spector, 2016). A seat belt that fails to minimize or stop the second collision qualifies as a faulty seat belt.
Factors Leading To Defective Seat Belts
Although, in most cases the injuries sustained by victims of car wrecks are related to the simple crash forces involved. Moreover, false latching and inertia unlatching can amplify the sustained injuries. Inertia unlatching occurs when the latch plate slides out of the buckle during a collision (Hylton 2014). Although the auto industry has termed such claims unfounded, recent GM testing has demonstrated that the force involved in a crash can trigger the release of the latch plate (Spector, 2016). Based on these findings, it is presumable that millions of cars have seat belts that are susceptible to inertia unlatching (Spector, 2016). On the other hand, false latch refers to a situation where the seat belts feel and sound like it is locked when inserted into the buckle, while in reality it is not. Both of these scenarios leave the passengers unrestrained and susceptible to serious injuries, what could have been avoided if the seat belts were not defective from the assembly line.
The second scenario occurs due to the torn or ripped webbing. This frequently happens if the material that has been used to design the seat belts is not strong enough to withstand the impact force during a collision. As a result, the belt may split into two leasing the passenger from the seat (Hylton 2014). Excessive slack or payout of the design may also contribute to such failures as well as sharp edges that might tear the belt at the moment of impact. Drivers have experiences brain damage and in some cases died due to the poor quality seat beats.
Another instance that represents defective seat belts that can lead to mass tort settlement is retractor failure (Hylton 2014). Seat belt retractor is supposed to lock the belt during an accident to hold the seat occupant in place. However, some retractor fails to secure the belt, releasing excessive webbing, what causes the seat occupant to hit the objects in front of him/her and sometime the wide screen (Hylton 2014). In fact, just a few inches of seat belt slackness might change a fatal accident into a minor injuries accident. This particularly case concerns mainly the driver, because the smallest among of slackness increases his/her chances of impacting on the steering wheel rim. Therefore, the victim can sue for a settlement based on the design defects or auto manufacturing defects (Hylton 2014). Although the majority of the car manufacturers deny skip lock possibility, General Motors internal research projects have confirmed what has been previously documented only in literature documents (Spector, 2016).
Moreover, most seat belts have a tension-relieving device that allows the driver to reach for items on the dashboard without the necessity to unbuckle the seat belt (Harper, Strumpf, Burris, Smith, & Lynch, 2013). This window shade retractor was introduced to the seat belts designs to allow the seat occupant to create some slack on the shoulder particularly when reaching for the car radio or other items that require a person to bend forward (Harper et al., 2013). Unfortunately, window shade retractors have been accused of allowing slack during an accident and in increasing the likelihood of fatal head injuries (Torba, Hijazi, Gjata, Madani, & Subashi, 2014). Moreover, poor seat belt geometry permits excessive excursion towards the floor, what leads to the failure of the seat belts to restrain the seat occupant (Torba et al., 2014). Lastly, vehicle systems failure can also contribute to faulty seat belts. The two factors work hand in hand to protect the seat occupants from injuries during an accident. Therefore, the failure of the car system might increase the chances of any of the above-mentioned faulty seat belts types (Torba et al., 2014). Other design errors that the plaintiffs might examine to determine whether sustained injuries after an accident deserve some form of compensation from the car design manufacturers include auto-belt systems and the lap-only belt (Torba et al., 2014).
Implications of Using Defective Seat Belts
In spite of the above-discussed cause of seat belt failures, their performance and effectiveness are determined on individual accident basis. Therefore, cases related to seat belts are more likely to qualify under mass tort claims rather than class action because of the difficulty to generalize the various facts (Torba et al., 2014). Similarly, defective seat belt scenarios are likely to result in injuries that are more severe comparing to the accidents when the safety belt responded appropriately to the impact.
Faulty Seat Belt as a Basis for Mass Tort
In most cases, defective seat belts result in a massive recall of vehicles. For example, General Motors (GM) in the recent past has experienced a recall of 250000 cars due to the seat belt related issues (Spector, 2016). Recently, the company has recalled 4.3 million vehicles due to possible airbag and seat belt failures (Spector, 2016). Although the problems have been linked to only one death and three injuries so far, it is enough evidence for lawyers to seek justice in mass tort action, considering the number of people that have been using the recalled vehicles (Spector, 2016). It has occurred days after the mishandling of the faulty ignition switch, which has been accused of leading to 124 fatalities (Spector, 2016). In this particular case, the latching mechanism had been identified as the source of the problem. Moving the seat back upright after putting it down could damage the latching mechanism (Harper et al., 2013). This gave the seat belts a false appearance of being latched when in reality it was not. Although GM offered to fix the problem, persons who were injured because of this defect could make a claim in either the federal courts or the state courts to be compensated for the sustained injuries (Harper et al., 2013).
Factors to Consider While Filing Mass Tort Settlement in Seat Belts Claim
Lawyers seeking to represent a client in a seat belt defect case under the mass tort litigation looked for the following accident implication in order to determine whether the seat belts were defective.
If the car had two passengers and both of them were wearing their seat belts but during collision one seat occupant sustained severe head injuries and another was left unharmed, then one of the seat belts was defective (Harper et al., 2013).
Loose fitting seat belt after the impact can mean that the belt had an excessive slack increasing the impact force experienced by the passenger.
Excessive slack or retractor failure occurs when the front seat occupant makes contact with the widescreen despite having their seat belt buckled.
Serious injuries resulting in a less damaged vehicle and during a minor accident indicate that the seat belts may have failed to work appropriately (Harper et al., 2013).
The last obvious indicator of defective seat belt is when the webbing is torn into two causing the seat occupant to hit the steering wheel or the widescreen.
Areas of Law, Under Which the Defective Seat Belts Victims, Can Claim Mass Tort Settlement
Laws at the federal level and the states levels govern mass tort settlements, which are similar to all other kinds of legal proceedings. At the federal level, a class action claims operate under the guidance of the Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and 28 USCA 1332 (d) (Macey & Miller, 2012). In Rule 23, the requirements and procedures of certifying a class is spelt out in details, while Rule 28 USCA 1332 (d) defines various categories of specific claims that qualify for litigation of class actions in federal court (Macey & Miller, 2012). Building on these federal laws, majority of the states have enacted civil procedure laws that closely resemble the federal rules, although it is not compulsory for the two to be similar (Macey & Miller, 2012). In fact, some states have enacted civil procedures that are significantly different from the federal process; while some of them limit the types of claims that can be identified as class actions, others have decided not to allow any class action. (Macey & Miller, 2012). Jurisprudence indicate that most of the mass tort claims are filed when the injured want to be financially compensated, but such claims can also seek a declaratory judgment on the legality of a contentious issue or issues (Macey & Miller, 2012). Additionally, other mass tort claims pursue injunctive relief where the litigation ends with a courts order directing the defendant to either refrain from continuing to cause harm to the plaintiffs or giving the defendant a permission to start with the actualization of the planed project (Macey & Miller, 2012).
Factors Leading to Mass Tort Settlement
Similar to other mass tort settlements, people who receive the proceeds of the settlement needs to consider several factors before taking the deal. The first consideration involves protection of government benefits eligibility (Davis, 2014). Depending on the amount payable after the settlement, acceptance of huge sums of money may cause the plaintiff to become ineligible for certain government benefits (Davis, 2014). These types of benefits mainly include people who have been mean tested (Davis, 2014). However, there are tools that can be used to protect the eligibility and at the same time accept the settlement (Hylton 2014). Preserving the settlement proceeds is also a critical issue. Similarly, injured claimants might consider structured settlements to place the litigation proceeds under the tax-free annuity (Hylton 2014). Structured settlement also provides other beneficial features such as guaranteed long-term income. Lastly, trusts can protect the eligibility for government benefits and at the same time help the victim to preserve the settlement (Hylton 2014). Therefore, lawyers are expected to connect their clients to settlement firms prior to the case resolution.
Limitations of Mass Tort Claims
Plaintiffs find it hard to prove that there is a failure in the seat belt unless in a situation where the company involved has recalled the vehicles. Similarly, the defendant also experiences challenges in defending the companys interest (Hylton 2014). Seat belt defense has become known as one of the major limitation in mass tort claims. In fact, the laws have been in the past controversial with regard to seat belt defense, just as it has been when trying to qualify the case under mass tort laws (Macey & Miller, 2012).
Examples and Analysis of Seat Belt Mass Tort Claims Settlement in Courts
As indicated above, GM has recalled millions of vehicles because of seat belt failure (Spector, 2016). As noted in the Nash-court, seat belts can in some cases create or enhance injuries instead of preventing them (Macey & Miller, 2012). For instance, in an Arizona case, seat belts trapped victims inside a burning vehicle (Macey & Miller, 2012). Nevertheless, the court has always found that it is safer for the passenger to remain inside the vehicle than to be thrown out through the widescreen in the event of an accident. Therefore, since GM has recalled more vehicles due to defective seat belts, it can result in more litigation and claims for mass tort settlement. In a case involving Branham v. Ford Motor, several important issues came up that would influence the future determination of seat belts related mass tort settlements (Macey & Miller, 2012). In this product liability case, no one was wearing a seat belt when Bronco veered out of the road after taking her eyes off the road for a few seconds (Macey & Miller, 2012). Her decision to turn left after realizing she was headed out of the road allegedly caused the car to roll over (Macey & Miller, 2012). The plaintiff was one of the parents of the children who were in the car during the incident. In fact, he sued the Ford based on the two products liability claims. The first claim was a defective seat belt sleeve, while the second one was an alleged vehicle designed, which gave the car a tendency to rollover (Macey & Miller, 2012). The court found that the final argument by the plaintiff was designed to inflame the jury, as it invited the judges to base the verdict on passion rather than reason (Macey & Miller, 2012). Moreover, the plaintiff had failed to provide a feasible alternative to the arguments used by the defendant (Macey & Miller, 2012). These findings coupled with the seat belt defense will definitely make it harder for plaintiffs to win seat belts mass tort claims.
In sum, mass tort claims based on defective seat belts are likely to follow the recalls made by GM after the detection of a failure in airbags and safety belts. However, for the plaintiff to be permitted to file the claims under mass tort action, he/she has to demonstrate that there are a significantly large number of plaintiffs involved in the case. At the same time, the plaintiff has to illustrate why it would be more prudent and cost-effective to have the case handled under mass tort action rather than through normal court procedures. In other words, the US law allows mass tort claims, however, the plaintiffs have to go through numerous procedure to put them in action. Moreover, the case has to be strong and have valid evidence to prove the fault of the company or corporation.