Do Class Actions Work In Mass Tort Cases?

A class action isn't usually suitable for mass tort cases, since there's typically too much variation concerning claimants' injuries/illnesses and related losses.

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:

  • discuss how class actions work
  • explain why true "mass tort" cases often can't be resolved via class action, and
  • cover the basics of "multidistrict litigation" (MDL) as the most common procedural tool for the consolidation of multiple mass tort claims.

What Is a Class Action?

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:

  • protecting the interests of 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.

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:

  • 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.

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.

Why Class Actions Aren't Usually a Good Fit for "Mass Tort" Cases

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.

What Is Multidistrict Litigation?

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 involve 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.

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