What Is a Class Action?

In many court cases, a single plaintiff brings charges or complaints against a single defendant. This allows individual defendants to face their accusers. It is the simplest way to work for justice through the court system. The development of class actions acknowledged that there were times when multiple people might have the same complaint against a defendant.

Rather than taking up the court’s time running the same trial with different plaintiffs, representatives of a larger class of plaintiffs could bring their complaint to a single trial. In the American legal system, there has been some form of legal basis for classes since 1842.

What is necessary for this kind of legal action?

For a court to approve a class, there are several conditions that must be met.

Class size

The number of members of the class must be too large to be reasonably accommodated by the court. The size of the class would also make it difficult for the court to handle complaints in a timely manner.

Shared Concern

The concern or complaint of the class members against the defendant must be similar or shared. For example, there might be a class of plaintiffs that all purchased the same defective device.

Typical Claims

The claims of one or a few class members must be typical of the whole class. It should be possible to have any member of the class as a representative plaintiff in the court.
Shared Interests. When someone joins a class, it is acknowledged that his or her interests in the case are adequately protected by the class representatives.

What are the benefits of a group action lawsuit?

The purpose of using a class is the convenience for both parties and the court. There are important benefits to this kind of legal action.

Lower litigation costs

The cost of legal proceedings is high. When a class files a lawsuit, the legal fees are divided among the individuals in the class, usually taken from the class settlement at the end. It is also less expensive to hold a single trial rather than multiple iterations of the same case.

Access to the court system

Joining a class may give individuals access to justice that they would not be able to afford on their own.
Maintains fairness. Working with a class allows a single standard of justice. If the same case were heard by different judges in multiple venues, the outcome and sentence my vary by case even though the complaint was the same.

Are there negative aspects to collective action?

Although working with a class for justice may provide legal access, historically, there are some negative sides to this kind of legal action.

Small settlements

Due to the cost of working with many clients and the amount of research required for these kinds of cases, the legal fees may eat up much of the final settlement. Collective action lawsuits sometimes result in what are called coupon settlements, where members of the class receive only a coupon for products by the defendant company or a small check.

Waiving of legal recourse

By participating in a class suit, members usually waive their right to take further legal action against the defendant. If the settlement is small, class participants may wonder if justice was truly served by the process.

In what types of law is group action appropriate?

Classes can be part of almost every kind of lawsuit. Some of the most common involve actions against large companies. These may involve such issues as defective products, general negligence and unforeseen side effects of pharmaceuticals or medical devices. Classes may also form around cases involving state or federal government issues. These are situations where a large number of people are negatively affected by policies or laws.

Are there different kinds of class or group actions?

The type of action depends on the number of plaintiffs, defendants and the venue.

Mass Tort

A mass tort is another name for a civil case that involves many plaintiffs. In this situation, it is common for legal experts to use the mass media to find more participants for the class. For this reason, you may see television commercials that ask people with a specific medical injury or complaint to contact a law office.

Multi-district Litigation

In the federal system, when plaintiffs in a class come from several federal court districts it is called multi-district litigation. The federal government allows such cases to be tried in a single district court.

Bilateral Class Actions

In collective action cases, it most common to have a group of plaintiffs bringing a complaint against a single defendant. However, there are cases where there is a class of multiple defendants. Often, this may happen when companies providing the same service are all accused of coordinating to something improper that is unfair to consumers. When there is a class of plaintiffs accusing a class of defendants, it is known as a bilateral class or group action.

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