How a Class Action Lawsuit Works

In a class action lawsuit, many plaintiffs who've suffered the same or similar injury sue one responsible party.

In the context of civil injury law, a class action is a lawsuit in which a large number of people with similar injuries sue one or several people, corporations or other entities. The group of people (the "class") alleges that the defendant is responsible for causing the harm that was suffered by members of the "class."

This article discusses the requirements and procedures for a class action lawsuit and how to go about filing one.

What is a Class Action?

A class action is the best option for suing one or a few defendants when there are too many potential plaintiffs to include everyone in a standard personal injury lawsuit. One or a few “representative plaintiffs” file the suit and conduct the litigation, while the other potential plaintiffs are only contacted so that they have the chance to “opt out” of the lawsuit (i.e. not participate in the results), or be instructed on how to receive their share of a damages award.

If a defendant settles the case or loses at trial, everyone who was injured by the defendant’s actions is given a percentage of the damages or, if it is too difficult to identify and contact all of the “victims”, a fund is made available to provide damages to anyone who can demonstrate they were harmed by the defendant’s actions.

More creative solutions can also come out of a class action settlement. For example, several department stores agreed to give away free makeup for a limited time to settle a class action that alleged the stores secretly worked together to keep cosmetic prices artificially high.

How to File a Class Action Lawsuit

The best way to file a class action lawsuit is to hire an experienced class action attorney. Class actions are very complex and, if the defendant is wealthy, very skilled attorneys will be conducting the defense for the other side.

If someone with little or no legal experience attempts to conduct a class action, he or she will most likely be outmatched and overwhelmed by the sheer number of procedural requirements. That said, initially filing a class action is typically accomplished by checking the appropriate box in the simple complaint filing sheet provided by the civil court. In addition to the filing sheet (or cover sheet) the plaintiff must also file the actual complaint containing the allegations of the lawsuit. The plaintiff must then serve the complaint on the defendant.

Having the Class Certified is the Most Important Step

Once the class action complaint is filed and served on the defendant, a court must certify the class. Depending on the state, either the court will initiate the certification process or the plaintiff must file a motion to have the class certified before the case can proceed.

The requirements for certification vary a bit from state to state, but most states generally follow the same broad requirements. For the judge to certify the class, the representative plaintiff must prove:

  • the representative plaintiff has suffered the same alleged injuries as the proposed class. The allegations are assumed to be true for the purposes of certification (since the trial has not started)
  • the class can be defined clearly enough to determine who is and is not a member
  • the number of class members makes joining all of them to the lawsuit impractical (40 or more is almost always enough, 21 or less is almost always not enough)
  • a common set of facts or legal interest underlies all of the members’ alleged injuries
  • the representative plaintiff’s claims are so similar to the class members that litigating the representative plaintiff’s case will adequately decide the absent class members’ cases, and
  • a class action is the best and most efficient way of resolving the claims, either for the plaintiffs or for the defendants.

Getting a class certified is not a matter of checking the right boxes. The judge is allowed to exercise a fair amount of discretion, and the arguments for and against certification can be quite complex and protracted.

If the class is not certified, the case is dismissed. If the class is certified, the case can move on to pre-trial procedures. A certified class does not mean the judge thinks the defendant is liable, or that a jury is likely to find the defendant liable, but it does mean the case has been vetted to some extent and the defendant is now threatened with a legitimate lawsuit.

In a class action case, this is why many injury settlement negotiations begin in earnest only after the class has been certified.

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