Master Complaint For Hair Relaxer Lawsuits Filed in Federal MDL

The U.S. District Judge presiding over all federal hair relaxer lawsuits has also issued protocols governing the discovery process, in a likely lead-up to bellwether test trial cases.

Plaintiffs pursuing hair relaxer lawsuits in the federal court system have filed a “Master Complaint”, which outlines all of the common allegations raised in claims being pursued by women diagnosed with uterine cancer, ovarian cancer and other injuries following regular exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals in the perm kits.

There are already more than 100 product liability lawsuit filed against the makers of Dark & Lovely, Just for Me, Optimum, ORS Olive Oil and other widely used chemical hair straighteners, each raising similar allegations that women were not adequately warned about the link between use of hair relaxer and cancer.

However, lawyers anticipate hundreds of additional cases will be brought in the coming weeks and months, if not thousands, given the widespread use of the hair relaxers and perms, which have been specifically marketed as safe for women in the Black community to use for decades.


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Since each of the claims raise common questions of fact and law, the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation decided earlier this year to consolidate and centralize all hair relaxer lawsuits in a MDL (Multidistrict Litigation), and appointed U.S. District Judge Mary M. Rowland to preside over coordinated discovery and pretrial proceedings out of the Northern District of Illinois.

On May 15, plaintiffs put forward a Master Long-Form Complaint (PDF), which can be used by all plaintiffs bringing claims in the hair relaxer MDL, by adopting certain allegations through the use of an abbreviated Short-Form Complaint.

In complex product liability lawsuits, where large numbers of individuals are pursing similar claims and allegations, it is common for the Court to approve a Master and Short Form Complaint, where plaintiffs can then file future lawsuits through an abbreviated form, where they adopt relevant allegations. The process also helps the parties identify common allegations in different groups of claims, and facilitates the court ruling on pretrial motions.

“Plaintiffs’ use of toxic chemical straightening products designed or manufactured by the Defendants was a direct result of Defendants’ wrongful marketing practices,” the Master Complaint states. “Defendants systematically misrepresented and continue to misrepresent the significant health impacts of hair relaxer use, all while targeting women of color and taking advantage of centuries of racial discrimination and cultural coercion which emphasized—both socially and professionally—the necessity of maintaining straight hair.”

As part of the MDL proceedings, it is expected that Judge Rowland will establish a “bellwether” process where a small group of representative claims will be prepared for early trial dates to help gauge how juries may respond to certain evidence and testimony that will be presented throughout other cases.

Part of that process involves the gathering of documents relating to hair relaxer cancer risks, marketing and warnings, known as the discovery process.

In a case management order (PDF) issued on May 18, Judge Rowland detailed the protocols for producing documents and electronically stored information by the parties. The order covers the preservation and collection of records, search terms, limitations on record searches, and calls for parties to meet and confer regarding planning for discovery, including identification of record custodians, data sources, and date ranges.

May 2023 Hair Relaxer Lawsuit Update

Each of the complaints raise similar allegations, indicating that women were not adequately warned about the toxic side effects of endocrine disrupting chemicals in the products, which have been blamed for cases of uterine cancerovarian canceruterine fibroids and other complications.

While the outcomes of any early bellwether trials will not have any binding impact on other claims, the average hair relaxer injury payouts awarded by juries for different types of injury, and against the manufacturers of different specific products, is expected to have a large impact on the amounts of any settlement offers that may be made to avoid the need for each individual case to go before a jury.

If the parties fail to negotiate hair relaxer injury settlements following the MDL proceedings before Judge Rowland, each claim may later be remanded back to the U.S. District Court where it originally would have been brought for future trial dates.

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