What is a Bellwether Trial?

A bellwether trial is a  test trial involving a case that derives from a large pool of lawsuits filed against the same party (or group of parties). The bellwether plaintiff is typically chosen because he/she is a typical representative of a large group. They are used as test cases in attempt to foresee how future litigation may turn out. Bellwether trials are used in mass tort actions, which occur when thousands of individuals are injured by the same defective product or medical device.

History of the term “Bellwether”

The term “bellwether” dates back to the 13th century when farmers began placing bells around the lead sheep in a flock so that the flock could be tracked and monitored. Similarly, bellwether trials are used track and monitor the potential outcome of a widely contested claim. When thousands of lawsuits are filed against one party, bellwether trials allow all parties involved to litigate a few, select cases in order to predict how the rest of the pending cases will turn out.

Multi-District Litigation

In other words, bellwether trials consist of a small group of plaintiffs who represent all plaintiffs filing suit against the adverse party. Bellwether trials are chosen after a Multi-District Litigation (MDL) is formed. A MDL is a federal legal procedure that helps speed up the litigation process when a plethora of claims are made against one party in different federal district courts. A MDL Panel, consisting of 7 judges from different circuit courts, decides whether or not an MDL is necessary. Once a MDL is established, it is up to the judge and related attorneys to choose which lawsuits will be included in the bellwether trials. The cases chosen are meant to represent the broad range of cases related to the MDL.

Benefits of Bellwether Trials

The benefits of bellwether trials span across all parties involved. For the plaintiffs, it allows the opportunity to present evidence and focus their claims on what will be the most successful in court. For the defendant, it provides the option to pursue litigation with the other cases filed or settle out of court. For judges and legislators, bellwether trials serve as an indicator of future trends in the legal industry. Bellwether trials provide a unique advantage to the legal system when no other options are available for handling a massive case load. Bellwether trials do not guarantee the same verdict across a MDL; they simply serve as a representative example of the situation at hand and how best to handle it.

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