Academic journal article The University of Memphis Law Review

The Litigators: Perceptions of Predictability, Definitions of a Good Outcome, and an Alternative to Mass Tort Trials

Academic journal article The University of Memphis Law Review

The Litigators: Perceptions of Predictability, Definitions of a Good Outcome, and an Alternative to Mass Tort Trials

Article excerpt

I.Introduction

A pervasive theme in our understanding of civil legal disputes is the "big case"; that is, the generic mass tort1 that pits sympathetic clients against shadowy, villainous corporations. In John Grisham's stories about these cases, a David-and-Goliath legal battle ensues, the parameters of the law shift, the attorneys' ethics stretch, and the author uses characters to reveal both sides' deep secrets unwillingly-and sometimes unwittingly.2 Ultimately, the case leads to a "win" for one side or the other-either a huge payday for the clients and a large percentage-based fee for the lawyers who stumbled across it, or a corporation that gets away with (sometimes literal) murder and goes back to its business as if nothing happened.3 These cases make for good storytelling because Grisham portrays the resulting jury trials as a rollercoaster ride with an unpredictable outcome, and because everyone assumes the plaintiff's goals are to seek both revenge on the corporation, by attacking its bank account, and validation through the court system. As such, there is suspense, excitement, and a clear understanding of what victory means in these stories. Most of all, we love the underdog theme that Grisham embedded into these stories, and we find ourselves rooting for "the little guy" again and again.4 John Grisham's works and other societal representations of mass torts repeat this theme.

These cases are not just figments of a best-selling author's imagination. While popular culture dramatizes aspects of these cases in novels, television shows, movies, and other media representations, these cases do reflect, at their core, a real legal framework that attempts to sort through some of the most complex and intricate litigation in the United States. These trials, typically dealing with harms like a cancer pocket,5 an environmental disaster,6 or a serious problem with a medication,7 are fraught with procedural rules and complex testimony that is often incredibly scientific and involves the questioning of dozens of scientists.8 These trials get some of the most expansive media coverage that the country sees, save for high profile murder trials.9 The complicated backstories, sympathetic plaintiffs, and potential for multi-million-dollar jury awards or settlements lend themselves to popular coverage and stories.10

These enormous tort trials that have come to define some of the most quintessential jury cases are, in reality, much more unpredictable and unsatisfying than we, as a society, would like to admit. In many cases, the plaintiffs do not recover anything for their losses, are barred from further litigation (even when they were part of the forced consolidation of a case),11 and both parties spend millions in legal fees.12 Perhaps the most concerning assessment of the mass tort system is that "overall performance of the litigation system in this area has been remarkably poor."13 An alternative to the jury box in these cases may provide more predictability and stability to all of those involved and, more importantly, may provide for a more tailored solution to provide justice to the parties involved in the dispute.

This Essay argues that an alternate dispute resolution theory could improve the current system for mass torts in ways that would better meet the interests of the parties involved in the dispute and the country as a whole. We outline this alternate dispute resolution theory, which could be useful in further exploration of systems that could lead to more "justice," and further outline some of the reasons why breaking away from the current system may be difficult. Part II will outline the current state of mass tort trials in the American judicial system, with an emphasis on both the big wins and big losses that represent the true outcomes of this form of justice. Part III will then dive into the divergence between societal perceptions of mass tort cases, as well as the benefits and flaws of this system as it relates to the interests of the parties involved. …

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