Congress and the Multiparty, Multiforum Trial Jurisdiction Act of 2002: Meaningful Reform or a Comedy of Errors?

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INTRODUCTION

On February 20, 2003 a fast-moving inferno tore through the Station, a nightclub in West Warwick, Rhode Island, killing one hundred people. (1) Considered one of the worst fires at a social assembly in United States history, (2) the accident has led to substantial litigation. (3) Private litigation arising from mass tragedies is not a new phenomenon and often involves many suits filed in different jurisdictions by different plaintiffs or sets of plaintiffs. Multiple lawsuits are particularly problematic in the context of a mass accident because, although mass accident cases usually are not appropriate for class action treatment, mass accident suits by individual plaintiffs often involve similar or identical questions of liability, generally against the same set of defendants. Traditionally, consolidation of individual claims for joint treatment has been frequently impractical or impossible because only some potential plaintiffs have been eligible to bring their cases in federal court--under statutory diversity jurisdiction--whereas other plaintiffs have had recourse only to state courts. Such split litigation results in substantial time and cost inefficiencies for parties and courts and also can generate inconsistent outcomes based on substantially similar facts.

In this environment of mass accident litigation, the Station fire is particularly important, because it represents the first accident to qualify for federal jurisdiction and consolidation under the Multiparty, Multiforum Trial Jurisdiction Act of 2002 (MPMF 2002) (5) and will become a test case for the ability of federal courts to handle complex mass accident litigation under this statute. (6) MPMF 2002 permits victims of accidents such as the Station fire to file suit in federal court based on only minimal diversity, (7) enabling them to take advantage of significant procedural benefits such as nationwide service of process and intervention in existing, related suits. (8) MPMF 2002 is also intended to benefit mass accident defendants by allowing them the option, under certain circumstances, of removing and consolidating separate actions relating to the same qualifying accident. (9)

Congress considered some form of multiparty, multiforum jurisdiction on several occasions, and MPMF 2002 consists largely of elements taken from those prior attempts. (10) MPMF 2002 aims to address the long-recognized inefficiencies and inconsistencies of duplicate litigation arising from a single mass tort, such as the Station fire. (11) Prior to MPMF 2002--as remains true today, with respect to categories of complex litigation not covered by that statute--jurisdictional and procedural constraints prevented joining all parties in a single state forum for consolidated litigation, requiring plaintiffs to file duplicate suits arising from the same accident. (12) MPMF 2002 provides limited federal jurisdiction so that, in a single accident resulting in at least seventy-five fatalities, a federal forum is available for consolidating all related litigation. (13) Facilitating joint adjudication of such common claims can eliminate redundant litigation expenses and use of judicial resources, promote just resolution of claims, and prevent conflicting or inconsistent judgments. This Note analyzes the effectiveness of MPMF 2002 in achieving these benefits while balancing the interests of litigants against those of the federal and state judicial systems.

This analysis of MPMF 2002 proceeds by examining four characteristics of the statutory scheme. Each of these four elements--original federal jurisdiction, intersystem consolidation, intrasystem consolidation, and procedural enablement--is necessary to consolidate effectively the related actions in a single forum. MPMF 2002's employment of each characteristic of consolidation determines the extent to which the Act will achieve its goal of making a single federal forum available for joint adjudication of claims arising from mass accidents. …