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:
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:
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:
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).
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.
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.