What is a Bellwether Trial and Why Is It Important?

Legal proceedings related to medical or consumer products often make the news because they affect so many people. Not only is it necessary to get the word out to those who might’ve been affected, it’s also important the general public understand their risk when they use certain products.

These cases can involve thousands of plaintiffs from all over the country, which can be overwhelming and disorganized. The good news is the legal system has tools that make it easier to resolve widespread issues. Cases can be combined into multidistrict litigation (MDL) and bellwether trials can be used to predict the outcomes of many cases.

What’s a Bellwether Trial?     

A bellwether trial is a sample trial that gives everyone involved a sense of what the future holds. It indicates trends in litigation and can help plaintiffs and defendants determine how they want to proceed.

Bellwether trials include a smaller subset from a large group of plaintiffs. Members of the subset are chosen because their legal issues are a good representation of the group as a whole. The initial trial (or trials, as there are sometimes multiple bellwethers for larger cases) serves as a reference point and sets a precedent.

Why are Bellwether Trials Important?

Bellwether trials are a useful tool when there is a large case. They provide information for those involved and allow everyone to determine how they want to proceed with future cases.

In addition to helping in the decision-making process and improving efficiency within the court system, bellwether trials also allow lawyers to organize and examine evidence, and design their questioning techniques and arguments. They use their experience to create “trial packages” that can be used in future cases.

Bellwether cases also increase the odds cases will settle out of court. They can serve as a sort of wakeup call or dose of reality for plaintiffs and defendants because they demonstrate how things are likely to play out. This increases the chance of an out-of-court settlement, alleviating some of the burden on the court system and ensuring a matter is resolved as quickly as possible.

The verdict in a bellwether trial is non-binding for everyone except those directly involved in those cases. This means bellwethers are intended to be an indication of how future trials will play out, but it does not dictate future verdicts.

For instance, if a bellwether trial results in a large verdict of $100 million in favor of the plaintiffs, that’s the binding outcome for that trial, but it does not mean all future verdicts must result in a $100 million favorable verdict for plaintiffs. The bellwether verdict does provide information both sides can use to strategize. Bellwether trials set a precedent, but are not directly tied to future trial proceedings.

How are Bellwether Cases Chosen?

There are a few different ways the cases that will serve as bellwethers are chosen. Lawyers from both sides and the judge overseeing the MDL are involved. They begin by categorizing all of the cases based on common issues and legal questions.

Once categories are established, a pool of representative cases are chosen and those are formally transferred to the MDL venue where pre-trial proceedings are held. Then they return to their original districts where they proceed to trial, are dismissed, or are settled before trial.

If you have questions about how bellwether trials or you are wondering if a bellwether trial could affect your lawsuit, we can help. Contact Andrus Wagstaff PC to learn more.

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