Juul Labs, Inc. (Juul) is the maker of popular electronic smoking devices (ESD). Juul is subject to hundreds of lawsuits stemming from claims that it marketed its product to youth and mislabeled the nicotine content of its products. In 2019 Juul filed a request to the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation to establish a Multidistrict Litigation (MDL), which on October 2, 2019, designated the District Court of Northern California to hear all cases emerging nationwide against Juul on the claims.
Multidistrict litigation is a court practice wherein a court combines similar tort cases that are not otherwise combined through class action certification. Some of the combined cases may themselves be certified class actions. In a MDL the individual cases still proceed, however for the purposes of efficiency the court selects several “bellwether” cases to act as exemplars for the cases overall. MDLs are often used in personal injury cases stemming from similar facts and claims but highly-varying plaintiffs.
Why it Matters for Public Health
Youth electronic smoking device use – commonly called “vaping” – significantly increased in 2016-2017 in the same period that Juul began selling its sleek devices and offering appealing flavors for its nicotine-containing e-liquid pods. Though Juul was and is not the only provider of these types of products, it was the most popular among youth for several years and remains one of the most popular products for middle and high school students; as importantly, Juul’s success spawned additional flavored, inconspicuous ESD products from other companies such as Puff Bar and Suorin. Innumerable providers of flavored e-liquids similarly emerged with pods that could work with devices such as Juul’s, despite them being unofficial/unauthorized. The 2019-2020 rise in lung injuries resulting from ESD use – known as E-cigarette or Vaping Product Use-Associated Lung Injury or EVALI – brought renewed attention to Juul’s role in driving youth ESD use.
The US Food and Drug Administration deemed ESD to fall within the scope of their regulatory review in 2016, however allowed products then-on-market to remain available pending submission of Premarket Tobacco Product Applications (PMTAs). Continued inaction on enforcement and postponement of the PMTA deadline led to public health groups filing suit against FDA to compel regulatory action (See American Academy of Pediatrics et al. v. US Food and Drug Administration et al. (2018)).
Juul Labs, Inc. (Juul) is the maker of popular electronic smoking devices (ESD). Beginning in 2017 youth consumption for electronic cigarettes significantly increased – driven in part by Juul’s marketing of flavored e-liquid pods, delivered through Juul devices which were much more portable and concealable than other ESD, and Juul’s use of social media platforms popular with youth and young people to market its products. By mid-2019 Juul was defendant in ten lawsuits in five Circuits, with plaintiffs ranging from individuals to school districts who argued 1) JUUL had intentionally marketed its JUUL products to attract minors, 2) that JUUL’s marketing misrepresented or omitted information that JUUL products were more potent and addictive than tobacco cigarettes, 3) that JUUL products were defective and unreasonably dangerous because they were so attractive to minors, and 4) that JUUL had promoted nicotine addiction. Juul filed a request to the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation to establish a Multidistrict Litigation (MDL), which on October 2, 2019, designated the District Court of Northern California to hear all cases emerging nationwide against Juul on the claims. Since forming the MDL, hundreds of more litigants have joined the plaintiffs in suing Juul, representing putative class actions, filings from school districts and other government bodies, and individual personal injury claims.
District Court Proceedings
Since the MDL was created in October, 2019, it has grown to include almost 3000 cases – of which several hundred have been dismissed for various reasons, leaving over 2000 cases by June 1, 2022. Judge William Orrick, presiding in the District Court of Northern California, established a complex apparatus for the parties to work through to determine the bellwether cases as well as to issue complaints and replies. Since 2019 Juul and the other defendants including parent company Altria have filed motions to dismiss against multiple cases, with some success and some denials.
On February 2, 2021, Judge Orrick selected 6 cases to act as the initial “government entity” bellwethers in the MDL, including 5 school districts (San Francisco, Tucson, Palm Beach County, King County, and Goddard) and 1 city (Rochester, NH). On July 22, 2021, Judge Orrick granted in part and denied in part Juul’s motions to dismiss the “personal injury” bellwether cases, thereby creating a cohort of 18 such cases (Bagley, Barnes, Bain, Dramis, Edwards, Fairess, Faulds, Fish, Gregg, D.H., J.L.K., Keffer, Miles, Pesce, Rest, Westfaul, Widergren, and Wong). Five bellwether cases were initially scheduled for trial in 2022, with the first trial case (Bain v. Juul Labs, one of the personal injury cases) beginning on June 16, 2022.
Litigation Status (OPEN)
The Juul MDL is a complicated amalgam of hundreds of cases, with individual settlements and dismissals occurring in tandem with proceedings to trial. The dispute overall remains ongoing and no overarching decisions have been reached.