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. And when injury or illness is linked to consumer products like Roundup weed killer or Zantac heartburn medication, it might seem like a class action is the best way for a large number of potential claimants to resolve their lawsuits against manufacturers and others. In this article, we'll:
A class action is a proceeding in which 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 harmed plaintiffs filed separate lawsuits, a class action can allow the matter to be efficiently adjudicated by a single judge for every potential claimant.
Some of the benefits of class actions include:
Before class action litigation gets started, the court must certify the class to ensure the claimants 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:
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:
In mass tort cases, in which a number of people have suffered injury or illness because of the wrongdoing of the same defendant (i.e. a product manufacturer or a drug maker), class action certification efforts often fail.
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 fairly 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).
Note that consumer protection-focused class action lawsuits are possible when a product or drug turns out to be dangerous. In cases like these, class members bought the product or drug in question, but usually weren't harmed by using it. These kinds of class actions typically allege deceptive marketing or similar wrongdoing on the part of the manufacturer, but include no claims for illness or injury.
In MDL, federal courts transfer factually similar cases into a single federal district, so that only one judge handles a consolidated action. This allows for efficiency in pretrial matters, and the judge encourages each side to work toward a global settlement. But ultimately, each plaintiff in the MDL controls his or her own destiny, and if settlement can't be reached, individual cases typically return to their original court for trial. Get more details on how MDL works in a mass tort case.
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.