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With thousands of JUUL nicotine addiction lawsuits pending in the federal court system, plaintiffs are asking the U.S. District Judge presiding over the litigation to consolidate a number of different claims for the first “bellwether” trial, which is expected to begin next year.
Each of the claims raise similar allegations, indicating JUUL Labs marketed their popular e-cigarettes toward teens and prior non-smokers, as part of a coordinated effort to create a new generation of customers with a life-long nicotine addiction, without adequately disclosing the serious health risks associated with their products.
Given common questions of fact and law raised in complaints brought throughout the federal court system, the JUUL litigation is currently centralized before U.S. District Judge William H. Orrick III in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, for coordinated discovery and pretrial proceedings.
As part of the management of the cases, Judge Orrick has established a “bellwether” process, where a small group of six personal injury cases are being prepared for early trial dates, which are designed to help the parties gauge how juries are likely to respond to certain evidence and testimony that will be repeated throughout the litigation.
In a letter (PDF) sent to Judge Orrick last week, Plaintiffs’ attorneys asked the court to consolidate all six bellwether cases into one combined trial. However, if the Court prefers smaller multi-plaintiff trials, Plaintiffs proposed two alternatives that would combine groups of two or through cases that share common traits.
“Consolidation is intended to mitigate the burden, expense and delay of repetitive trials presenting largely the same evidence and resolving largely the same issues,” the letter states. “Indeed, in cases where multiple plaintiffs allege an identical form of injury arising from the same conduct, consolidation is standard practice.”
Plaintiffs argue that the cases are nearly identical, alleging the same forms of nicotine addiction injury resulting from the same conduct and products made by the same defendant. The letter indicates consolidating the cases into one trial, like the MDL itself, will create uniformity in proceedings involving common questions of fact and law, and will save the court, parties and witnesses unnecessary expense and burden.
On the same day the proposal was filed, JUUL Labs sent a letter (PDF) urging Judge Orrick to reject the consolidation of any cases, saying it creates a risk of unfair prejudice and “reinforcing effects that one plaintiff’s evidence will have on others”, which would be magnified by the aspect of youth use.
It is expected that Judge Orrick will make a decision about whether to hold consolidated trials during the bellwether process in the coming months, as it is expected that the bellwether trials will begin in the first half of 2022.
JUUL Labs currently faces more than 4,500 product liability lawsuits brought throughout the federal court system, including individual nicotine addiction claims, as well as lawsuits filed by school districts and municipalities who incurred costs fighting the epidemic of teen vaping in recent years.
JUUL pods were just introduced in 2015, and quickly became the most popular form of nicotine exposure among teens and young adults in the United States.
Marketing efforts by the manufacturer have been blamed for fueling the teen vaping epidemic, which has caused widespread disruption in schools, additional costs for local municipalities and left young adults addicted to high levels of nicotine in each JUUL pod, often leading to smoking and long-term health concerns.
The JUUL vape pens were designed to look like USB drives, allowing teens to hide their vaping habit from parents and school officials. The pods were also sold in a variety of candy-like flavors intended to appeal to prior non-smokers, and the manufacturer targeted teens through social media and other efforts that failed to disclose the high levels of nicotine, which may cause life-long addiction problems.
While the outcomes of these early bellwether trials will not be binding on other claims pending in the federal court system, they will be closely watched and may greatly influence any JUUL settlements offered by the manufacturer to avoid the need for hundreds of individual trial dates to be scheduled in different U.S. District Courts nationwide in the coming years.