Primary Jurisdiction and the Limits of Measurement in Mass Litigation

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This Article examines the use of primary jurisdiction through the lens of institutional economics and the ongoing revolution in pre-suit, plaintiff-side testing in mass litigation. In this setting, primary jurisdiction serves a necessary pro-agency institutional role. The ability of plaintiffs’ attorneys to easily generate sophisticated laboratory testing results has allowed them to create a quasi-regulatory quality-control regime for defendants’ products and extract value from it through enhanced settlements. This offers defendants the burdens of regulation without the benefits of uniformity or policymakers with subject-matter expertise and capacity for public input. Primary jurisdiction enables defendants in mass litigation to move these quasi-regulatory actions back to regulatory settings, where the potential for efficient quality-control standards increases with agency expertise. Shifting decision-making in testing-based actions to agencies then preserves this value from conversion into litigation-based transaction costs. As scientific resolving power and the scope of potentially measurable harm evolve, primary jurisdiction thus functions as a central balancing mechanism allowing corresponding evolution in adjudication.