Tainted Loans: The Value of a Mass Torts Approach in Subprime Mortgage Litigation
79 Pages Posted: 17 Jun 2009 Last revised: 20 Feb 2010
Date Written: February 18, 2010
A poison has entered the financial bloodstream. The subprime mortgage crisis and the wider financial crisis it has spawned have caused the erosion of trillions of dollars in wealth, the destruction of whole communities and the dislocation of millions of homeowners. Yet, unlike in other situations where toxic products have caused widespread harm, to date, we have not seen an avalanche of litigation, large jury awards, massive settlements compensating victims and financial ruin for the distributors of those products. Some of this is changing, however. Litigation arising out of the present financial crisis is hitting the courts, including suits alleging discrimination in the proliferation of subprime mortgages, securities litigation, and claims under state unfair trade practices laws and common law fraud principles. Courts may soon be inundated with these cases and will need effective tools for handling them.
With some exceptions, the litigation presently underway is an incoherent collection of random cases, however. If we view the subprime mortgage crisis and the financial crisis that has followed as the result of the proliferation of toxic products, a mass tort approach to the subprime mortgage disaster would seem inevitable. Such an approach would include utilization of the following techniques: class actions; consolidation of related cases; global settlements; and aggregation of factual, liability and damages assessments. This article makes the case that subprime litigation should adopt the techniques utilized in mass torts cases to make the prosecution of such litigation more efficient, comprehensive and effective, while bringing those most responsible for the present financial crisis to justice. It is argued that these techniques are best suited to achieve what I identify as goals for a legal response to the financial crisis: reducing the number of foreclosures; correcting for past illegality in the mortgage market; uncovering and spreading information about the presence of such illegality; promoting the modification of outstanding mortgage loans; strengthening and expanding voluntary efforts to overcome past abuses in the market; preserving home values; and complementing legislative and regulatory efforts to improve oversight of financial markets. The article also concludes that a mass torts approach in the subprime litigation context is superior in terms of meeting these goals when compared to other potential legal responses: i.e., individual litigation, individual bankruptcy, regulation, voluntary efforts and social insurance.
Keywords: financial crisis, subprime mortgage crisis, mass torts
JEL Classification: K10, K11, K12, K13, K20, K22, K23, K41
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation