A class action is intended to improve court efficiency by allowing a large group of people with similar claims to join together in one lawsuit. One or more representatives of the harmed group go to court on behalf of everyone else who was similarly affected. If those representatives meet certain criteria, they are allowed to prove and settle not only their own claims, but the claims of everyone in the larger group as well.
A potential class action lurks whenever a company's actions harm lots of people. Class actions have been brought against the manufacturers and distributors of products as diverse as employment matters, defective products and tobacco. Business practices that harm consumers, such as overcharging for banking services or using misleading information to sell products ("You're already a winner, send in your magazine subscription to collect your prize"), have spawned class actions. Shareholders can bring class actions against companies for poor management or misleading investment literature. Employees can sue employers collectively for discriminatory practices or for violating employment or benefit agreements.
There are strict rules for class actions to assure that a few people can adequately represent the interests of many. Here are the basic elements:
If these criteria are met and all the class wants is an order telling the defendant to stop doing something - dumping waste into a river, for example - a judge will usually agree to "certify" the class. (Certification allows a few designated appointees to represent the other members of the class.) If the class also wants money, they have to prove that the claims and injuries are so similar that they can be well managed in one lawsuit. Mass tort cases, in which a lot of people have been physically injured in a disaster or by a dangerous product, are often denied class action status because the causes and extent of individual injuries vary so much from person to person.
Types of Class Actions
Class actions may involve a variety of legal claims, and have been used to bring:
Depending on the defendant's attitude, a class action may take many times longer or quite a bit shorter than individual cases. Some drag on for many years, while others settle in six months. The usual order of events is that after a complaint is filed, the parties do limited investigation into whether the action fits the class action requirements. The plaintiffs then ask the court for class certification. If the court says yes, there may be more investigation or the case may settle.
The vast majority of class action cases are settled if they are certified or if the defendant believes they will be. The class members are notified of the proposed settlement and given an opportunity to join in or object to its terms. Some types of class actions require that you send in an "opt-in" form to join. For others, you're in if you do nothing. After the class members respond to the proposed settlement, a court determines whether the settlement is fair and reasonable.
The main benefit of class actions is that they level the playing field when individuals join together to take on a big company.
If you feel you may have a class action, contact us so we may review your situation with you.