What Are Bellwether Cases and What Purpose Do They Serve?

If you’ve been watching the legal news lately about the lawsuits against Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiary DePuy Orthopaedics Inc. or the growing number of lawsuits filed in relation to the Flint water crisis, you may have heard the term “bellwether trial.” What exactly are bellwether trials? What purpose do they serve?

Bellwether Trials Serve as Test Runs for Future Cases

When there’s a large group of plaintiffs who all allege similar complaints and fact patterns, bellwether trials serve the function of a test run for the remaining cases. Usually, several small groups of litigants who all have similar issues are chosen to go through trials as part of bellwether cases. Several bellwether cases are tried because a single trial isn’t enough to guarantee that the results are likely to be similar each time.

Plaintiffs, defendants, and judges all watch bellwether cases very closely to get an idea of what juries are going to do in these cases. They can also show both plaintiffs and defendants the weak areas in their cases and the other side’s strategy—allowing them to adjust their strategy to try to obtain more favorable results.

Bellwether Cases Allow for Strategic Future Planning

Another purpose behind bellwether cases is to allow for strategic future planning by both the plaintiffs and the defense. Personal injury cases are expensive to litigate and require a great deal of time to even get to trial, so a “clear” result from the bellwether cases can encourage individual settlements instead of having every single case proceed to trial. These projections also reduce the costs to both litigants and the court itself.

For example, the third bellwether trial against Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiary DePuy Orthopaedics Inc. has come to a close with a significant verdict for the six plaintiffs involved. The verdict includes $32 million in actual damages and more than $1 billion in punitive damages. A previous bellwether trial ended similarly, although the punitive damages were reduced due to state caps that applied to those particular plaintiffs. The defense won its first bellwether case, which was against a single plaintiff.

Johnson & Johnson points to the differing results to say that distortions arise in cases with multiple plaintiffs because these cases present a group of injured people in front of a jury and play on the jury’s sympathy for a bigger verdict.

Plaintiffs, on the other hand, feel that the verdicts send a clear message to the corporate entities involved that the juries disapprove of their behavior. The actual damages awarded represent the verifiable financial losses that the plaintiffs suffered, such as medical expenses for surgery, rehab, therapy, actual lost wages, future lost wages, and estimated future expenses for ongoing care.

The punitive damages, however, represent nothing more than a way to fine the companies for their behavior and deter them (and others) from similar actions. In cases like these jury members may feel that the company knew the devices or products were defective but never warned people of the risk.

One Lost Bellwether Case Doesn’t Mean the End of Your Case

When the results of bellwether trials are clearly slanted against the plaintiffs or show fairly mixed results, you may worry that your future claim won’t stand a chance—but that assumption often isn’t the case. Instead, a change in strategy that you can work out with your attorney may be necessary.

Each bellwether trial gives you and your attorney new information that can help you deal with potential problems. Also, given the costs of litigation, the defense may still be willing to offer a settlement in your case, although the amount could be lower than you would expect if the bellwether trials were more favorable.

For more information on filing your own personal injury case, contact one of our attorneys at the AMS Law Group. We’ll be happy to speak with you at no cost and with no obligation.