By Pamela Foohey (Yeshiva University – Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law) and Christopher K. Odinet (University of Iowa – College of Law)
Bankruptcy is being used as a tool for silencing survivors and their families and to obfuscate the truth. When faced with claims from multiple plaintiffs related to the same wrongful conduct that can financially or operationally crush the defendant over the long term—a phenomenon we identify as onslaught litigation—defendants harness bankruptcy’s reorganization process to draw together those who allege harm and pressure them into a swift, universal settlement. In doing so, they use the bankruptcy system to deprive survivors of their voice. They also seek to decrease information available to the public about the allegations, using bankruptcy to shut down extended discussion of their purported wrongdoings.
This Article identifies this phenomenon and argues that it is time to rein in this destructive use of bankruptcy. Whereas the current literature largely discusses mass tort bankruptcy from a doctrinal, constitutional, or economic perspective, this Article examines how bankruptcy proceedings like these cause direct harms to survivors, to public trust in the justice system, and to the corporate economy. It traces the evolution of defendants’ use of bankruptcy to resolve mass torts from asbestos, IUD, and breast implant product liability litigation to its present-day use in controversies involving the Catholic Church, Purdue Pharma, the Weinstein Companies, USA Gymnastics, the Boy Scouts of America, Alex Jones’s InfoWars, and J&J. The Article shows how the prior use of reorganization for mass torts created the necessary conditions to allow defendants to use bankruptcy to silence people and facilitate cover-ups in a wider variety of onslaught litigation. It concludes with a normative proposal for the narrow circumstances in which courts should allow bankruptcy to be used to deal with onslaught litigation, while still preserving the voices of those harmed.
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