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Litigating Together: Social, Moral, and Legal Obligations

Elizabeth Chamblee Burch

University of Georgia Law School

March 8, 2011

Boston University Law Review, Vol. 91, p. 87, 2011
FSU College of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 437

In a post-Class Action Fairness Act world, the modern mass-tort class action is disappearing. Indeed, multi-district litigation and private aggregation through contracts with plaintiffs’ law firms are the new mass-tort frontier. But something’s amiss with this “nonclass aggregation.” These new procedures involve a fundamentally different dynamic than class actions: plaintiffs have names, faces, and something deeply personal at stake. Their claims are independently economically viable, which gives them autonomy expectations about being able to control the course of their litigation. Yet, they participate in a familiar, collective effort to establish the defendant’s liability. They litigate from both a personal and a collective standpoint.

Current scholarship overlooks this inter-personal dimension. It focuses instead on either touting the virtues of individual autonomy or streamlining mass litigation to maximize social welfare. Both approaches fail to solve the unique problems caused by these personal dimensions: temptations for plaintiffs to hold out and thus derail settlements demanding near unanimity, outliers who remain disengaged from the group but free-ride off of its efforts, and subgroups within the litigation whose members compete for resources and litigation dominance to the group’s detriment. Accordingly, this Article has two principal objectives: one diagnostic, one prescriptive. The diagnosis is this: current procedures for handling nonclass aggregation miss the mark. Process isn’t just an exercise in autonomy or a handy crutch for enforcing substantive laws. Procedures can serve as a means for bringing plaintiffs together, plugging their individual stories into a collective narrative, making sense of that narrative as a community, reasoning together about the right thing to do, and pursuing that end collectively. Thus, the prescription is litigating together.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 71

Keywords: aggregation, multidistrict litigation, MDL, procedural justice, Vioxx, mass torts, consent, class action, groups, autonomy

JEL Classification: K40, K13, K41

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Date posted: March 27, 2010 ; Last revised: March 8, 2011

Suggested Citation

Burch, Elizabeth Chamblee, Litigating Together: Social, Moral, and Legal Obligations (March 8, 2011). Boston University Law Review, Vol. 91, p. 87, 2011; FSU College of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 437. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1577073

Contact Information

Elizabeth Chamblee Burch (Contact Author)
University of Georgia Law School ( email )
225 Herty Drive
Athens, GA 30602
United States

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