More than 8,300 Hair Relaxer Lawsuits Over Uterine Cancer, Ovarian Cancer, Other Injuries Pending in Federal MDL

Lawyers are scheduled to meet with the judge presiding over the hair relaxer lawsuits this week, as plaintiffs accuse manufacturers of engaging in an effort to unnecessarily delay the litigation and start of bellwether trials.

The U.S. District Judge presiding over all hair relaxer lawsuits filed throughout the federal court system is scheduled to meet with lawyers involved in the litigation on March 7, as the size and scope of the litigation continues to increase, and parties disagree on the timing and process for selecting a small group of reprsentative claims to prepare for early bellwether trials.

According to a docket report (PDF) released on March 1, there are currently at least 8,334 product liability lawsuits filed by women who indicate that they developed uterine cancer, ovarian cancer, fibroids or other injuries that were caused by exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals in Dark & Lovely, Just for Me, Optimum, ORS Olive Oil and other chemical hair straighteners that have been frequently used by African American women for decades.

The litigation emerged in late 2022, following the publication of a study that highlighted a link between use of hair relaxer and uterine cancer, finding that women who regularly used the products face a 156% increased risk compared to women who did not use hair relaxers.

As a result of those findings, women throughout the U.S. began filing Dark & Lovely lawsuitsJust for Me lawsuits and similar claims against the makers of other popular hair relaxers, seeking financial compensation from the manufacturers, each raising similar allegations that a desire for profits was placed before the health of consumers.

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Given common questions of fact and law raised in hair relaxer lawsuits filed throughout the federal court system, the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation (JPML) established coordinated pretrial proceedings in the Northern District of Illinois under U.S. District Judge Mary Rowland in January 2023, who has been presiding over coordinated discovery into common issues that impact all claims and indicated that a “bellwether” program will be established to prepare a small group of representative cases for early trial dates.

While the outcomes of these early bellwether trials will not have any binding impact on other claims, they are expected to drive potential hair relaxer settlement negotiations by helping the parties gauge how juries may respond to certain evidence and testimony that will be repeated throughout the litigation.

Hair Relaxer Lawsuit Bellwether Selection Dispute

Ahead of a case management conference scheduled for Thursday, the parties filed a joint status report (PDF) on March 1, updating the Court on the status of the litigation and outlining a number of disputes that have arisen regarding the timing and process for selecting bellwether claims.

In the report, the manufacturers called for delays and changes to the selection process, by arguing that plaintiffs have been slow to sufficiently complete Plaintiff Fact Sheets (PFS), which are written statements intended to provide certain information about each claim. The defendants claim that incomplete PFS in a number of recently filed claims will impact their ability to determine the most appropriate bellwether selections.

However, plaintiffs indicate that with thousands of claims filed, the manufacturers are overstating the impact of the problem and have unreasonable expectations, indicating that the court-established deadline for most of the claimants to complete fact sheets just passed three weeks ago. In addition, with thousands of fact sheets already fully complete, the plaintiffs maintain there are plenty of claims for the parties to make representative selections for the early trial dates.

“Defendants appear adamant about delaying this litigation; first, in their own discovery obligations which has been atrocious and now, by claiming the individual plaintiff PFS, due less than three weeks ago, are somehow poised to delay this litigation,” plaintiffs responded. “This is nothing more than a manufactured argument that is not ripe yet but was clearly crafted in the days before the JSR (joint status report) was due in an effort to suggest to the Court that the bellwether process should be further delayed. This is underscoring the theme of delay-delay-delay.”

Plaintiffs indicate in the filing that the manufacturers are attempting to seize on a tiny fraction of cases where the fact sheets were not served by the deadlines, in asking the court to further extend the litigation. However, they maintain that this will have no impact on the selection of representative cases for bellwether work-up and ultimate trial dates in the MDL.

March 2024 Hair Relaxer Lawsuit Update

In November, parties proposed competing draft hair relaxer lawsuit bellwether trial plans, which outlined a process for selecting potential bellwether cases and putting them through case-specific discovery in preparation for early trial dates. However, the parties have been unable to agree on several key points regarding the bellwether selections, as well as when the first trials should begin, and how big a factor general causation should play in the early phases of the litigation.

Following the March 2024 hair relaxer lawsuit status conference, it is expected that Judge Rowland will issue a case management order establishing how the litigation will move forward.

While the stated intention of bellwether trials is to identify the most representative lawsuits, parties in complex litigation often jockey to make selections that are most beneficial to their side, as the average hair relaxer lawsuit payouts will have a substantial impact on the amount of money the manufacturers may be required to pay to avoid the need for thousands of individual cases to go before separate juries nationwide.

Following coordinated discovery in the MDL and any early bellwether trials, if the parties fail to negotiate hair relaxer settlements for individuals diagnosed with uterine cancer, endometrial cancer, ovarian cancer, uterine fibroids and other complications, Judge Rowland may later remand each individual lawsuit directly filed in the MDL back to the U.S. District Court where it would have originated for a separate trial.


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