Hair Relaxer MDL Judge Appoints Attorneys to Plaintiffs’ Leadership Development Committee

The committee will allow younger, less experienced attorneys to be coached on how to manage a multidistrict litigation (MDL), so they can serve as leaders in future mass tort lawsuits.

The U.S. District Judge presiding over all federal hair relaxer lawsuits has appointed a group of attorneys to serve on a Leadership Development Committee, which is designed to mentor and coach younger, less experienced lawyers through the multidistrict litigation (MDL) process.

Following the publication of a study last year, which highlighted a link between use of hair relaxer and cancer, hundreds of product liability lawsuits are now being pursed against the makers of various different chemical straightening products, including Dark & Lovely, Just for Me, Optimum, ORS Olive Oil and other wide used relaxers.

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.

Given the widespread use of the hair relaxers and perms, especially in the Black community, it is widely expected that the litigation will eventually include tens of thousands of lawsuits filed by women nationwide.

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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.

Last month, Judge Rowland appointed a group hair relaxer injury lawyers to serve in leadership positions in the MDL, designating four attorneys as co-lead counsel to oversee the plaintiffs’ case, as well as about two dozen experienced attorneys who will sit on a Plaintiffs’ Executive Committee and on a Plaintiffs’ Steering Committee.

As part of an effort to foster the growth of younger attorneys during the hair relaxer MDL process, Judge Rowland issued another order (PDF) last week, creating a Leadership Development Committee (LDC), which will help teach a group of 12 members how multidistrict litigations are conducted, as they provide services that will benefit all plaintiffs pursuing a lawsuit.

“The Leadership Development Committee is designed to provide mentorship to those individuals interested in the furtherance of their understanding of and involvement in MDL practice, with particular interest in this litigation,” Judge Rowland wrote. “LDC members shall be assigned projects by Plaintiffs’ Leadership in the furtherance of this litigation that may constitute common benefit work.”

Membership on the LDC is to last for two years. While Judge Rowland said it is the intent of Plaintiffs’ Leadership attorneys to appoint a new slate of LDC members after that two years is over, members can be approved to spend more time on the LDC with the permission of the co-lead attorneys.

The LDC will include a sub-committee consisting of seven additional members, designed to also mentor very junior lawyer applicants who have not yet reached the experience level of other attorneys being coached on the LDC.

In addition, on April 11, Judge Rowland announced that defendants have designated a Defendant’s Liaison Counsel (PDF) who will act as an intermediary between different law firms representing the hair relaxer manufacturers and the court.

April 2023 Hair Relaxer Lawsuit Update

As part of the coordinated management of the litigation, Judge Rowland will preside over discovery into common issues that apply to all claims, and is expected to establish a bellwether process, where small groups of representative hair relaxer injury lawsuits will go through case-specific discovery and be prepared for early trial dates, to help gauge how juries are likely to respond to certain evidence and testimony that will be repeated throughout the litigation.

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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