How a Class Action Lawsuit Works

In a class action lawsuit, people who've suffered a similar loss or injury bring a single collective case against the responsible party.

By , Attorney · University of Michigan Law School

In the context of personal injury law, a class action is a case in which a large number of people who have experienced the same or similar harm form a single class of claimants that files a civil lawsuit against, usually against one or several corporations or other entities. Let's look at the requirements and procedures for filing and participating in a class action.

Class Action Basics

A class action is the best option for suing one or a few defendants when there are too many potential plaintiffs to include in a standard personal injury lawsuit, and the prospect of individual cases is impractical. One or a few "representatives" file the suit and conduct the litigation, while the other potential class members are contacted/notified so that they have the chance to "opt out" of the class action (i.e. not participate in the results), or be instructed on how to receive their share of any damages award or settlement.

If a defendant settles the class action or loses at trial, are class members who have not opted out are given a percentage of the amount or, if it is too difficult to identify and contact all of the potential class members, a fund is made available to provide damages to anyone who can demonstrate they were harmed by the defendant's actions (for example, prove they purchased a product that has been recalled as defective).

More creative solutions can also come out of a class action settlement, especially in non-injury cases. 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

Technically, filing a class action is often accomplished by checking the appropriate box in the simple complaint filing sheet provided by your state's civil court (the complaint is the document that starts the lawsuit). In addition to the filing sheet (or cover sheet) the plaintiff must also file the complaint, which contains the allegations of the lawsuit. The plaintiff must then serve the complaint on the defendant. But the real procedural step in these cases is certification of the class.

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 has suffered the same harm or injuries as members of the proposed class
  • 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 those of 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 at fault for the class's collective harms, 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 facing 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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