How Do Mass Tort Class Actions Work?

How mass tort class actions work and how one might affect you, whether you know about it or not.

We hear about class actions in the news, and maybe even received a "notice of class action", but the inner workings of this unique variety of civil lawsuit can feel like a bit of a mystery.

A class action is a case where one or a few representative plaintiffs file a lawsuit on behalf of a larger group, called a class. When cases would be unmanageable if all injured or harmed plaintiffs filed separate lawsuits—as with certain kinds of mass tort claims—a class action can allow the matter to be efficiently adjudicated by a single judge for every potential plaintiff.

Some of the benefits of class actions include:

  • protecting the interests of injured people who aren’t or can’t be before the court
  • convenience and economy in disposing of similar lawsuits
  • spreading litigation costs among many plaintiffs with similar claims, and
  • protecting the defendant from unpredictable outcomes based on the same potential wrongdoing.

The Requirement of Class Action Certification

Before class action litigation gets started, the court must certify the class to ensure the plaintiffs have enough in common so that proceeding with a class action makes sense. But stringent rules make classes difficult to get certified.

There are four initial requirements for class certification:

  • Numerosity: There must be so many plaintiffs filing lawsuits against a particular defendant that it would be impractical to each file a separate lawsuit.
  • Commonality: All claims must have common questions of law (how the defendant might be held liable, for example) and of fact (the experiences of each claimant).
  • Typicality: Class representatives must have claims that are typical of the entire class, so that litigating the representatives’ claims will sufficiently resolve all other claims.
  • Adequacy of representation: Class representatives must be ready and able to adequately protect the entire class’s interests. When making this determination, the court looks at representatives and their lawyers.

In addition to numerosity, commonality, typicality, and adequacy of representation, the presiding judge usually must also find at least one of the following to be true in order to certify a class:

  • requiring separate lawsuits would risk inconsistent rulings, or a ruling on one class member’s case could impair other plaintiffs’ lawsuits,
  • the defendant has treated all plaintiffs so similarly that it would be appropriate to provide the same relief to all plaintiffs, or
  • the common questions of law or fact in each plaintiff’s case “predominate” over their specific circumstances, and certifying the class would be superior to other options for litigating the case.

Given all the requirements for class status, class actions are usually reserved for cases where each claimant's damages are primarily economic, such as when everyone who bought the same product unknowingly paid for something the defendant negligently or fraudulently charged them for. In these cases, it’s easy to assign a value for each plaintiff’s losses.

But sometimes a common wrongful act can cause damages that vary greatly from plaintiff to plaintiff. For example, a defective medical device can fail in a similar way for each patient, but the nature and extent of injury suffered by each patient can vary (and subjective impact like "pain and suffering" can vary significantly from claimant to claimant). Cases like these aren’t good candidates for class actions, and are more likely to be prosecuted in multidistrict litigation (MDL).

Notice of Proposed Class Action Settlement

After a class is certified and the parties eventually reach a court-approved settlement, the lawyers send a Notice of Proposed Class Action Settlement to potential class members. This notification advises potential plaintiffs that they can submit a claim for part of the settlement if they meet the eligibility requirements.

Alternatively, potential claimants can “opt out” of the class action and reserve their right to file a separate lawsuit against the defendant, and not be bound by the outcome of the class action. Oftentimes, potential class action plaintiffs don’t even know about the litigation until they receive a notice of settlement.

Disadvantages of Class Actions

Class actions have been criticized by legal commentators. In contrast with other mass tort litigation, in class actions, plaintiffs all receive the same settlement award irrespective of the severity of their injuries. Usually, even when class action plaintiffs get a check, it’s very small. And, of course, it’s practically impossible to notify every potential plaintiff of the lawsuit. Although the lawyers send a Notice of Proposed Class Action Settlement, plaintiffs might not receive it, read it, or understand it. In those circumstances, a class plaintiff is bound by unanticipated case outcomes.

If you think you've been harmed by a product, medication, or dangerous chemical, and your potential legal claim might involved a "mass tort," it might be a good idea to discuss your situation (and your options) with an attorney. Get tips on finding the best lawyer for you and your injury case.

Talk to a Personal Injury Lawyer

Need a lawyer? Start here.

How it Works

  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Choose attorneys to contact you
Make the Most of Your Claim

Get the compensation you deserve.

We've helped 285 clients find attorneys today.

How It Works

  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Choose attorneys to contact you