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Sculpting the Lawsuit

It makes good sense to allow parties to join as plaintiffs or to sue defendants jointly in a single action if the criteria in Rule 20(a) are met. When a number of claims involve a single transaction or occurrence, and the same issue or issues will have to be litigated to resolve each claim, it is more efficient to litigate those issues once in a combined action rather than repeatedly in separate suits. In addition, resolving those issues in a single action avoids the possibility of inconsistent judgments on the same issue. For example, if Volt sues Ellsworth and recovers, but Edison sues Ellsworth and loses, the two juries must have disagreed on whether Ellsworth was negligent (barring any contributory negligence defense). Such inconsistent results reflect unfavorably on the judicial system and are best avoided where possible. If Volt’s and Edison’s claims are tried together there will be no inconsistent verdicts, since there will be only one finding on Ellsworth’s negligence.

Interestingly, however, Rule 20(a) does not require parties to be joined whenever the criteria in the rule are met. At least initially, the joinder decision is left to the plaintiffs. If they choose to sue some but not all defendants in one action, they may sue the others in a separate action or never sue them at all. If they choose not to join in a suit by other plaintiffs against the defendant, they remain free to pursue their own claims in separate suits.

An Early but Sensible Question

1. Since it promotes efficiency and consistency to litigate related claims such as Volt’s and Edison’s together, why doesn’t Rule 20(a) require joinder of parties where the two criteria in the rule are met? (The explanations begin on p. 261.)

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