Understanding Class Actions

Here we provide a brief explanation of the legal terms and procedures that you may expect to encounter during class action litigation. A class action allows one or more plaintiffs to file and prosecute a lawsuit on behalf of a larger group, or “class.” This “class” must consist of a group of individuals or entities that have suffered a common injury or injuries.

Many people believe that a class action is a lawsuit filed any time a large number of people are hurt as a result of the wrongdoing of another. However, this is incorrect and leads to confusion about the public’s legal rights. We have provided information about the various types of class action lawsuits and your rights.

Should your claim be prosecuted individually or on behalf of a group of similarly situated persons?

The answer to that question is not simple, as it raises practical and legal issues. The first and most important action to take is to consult with a class action lawyer. An experienced class action lawyer will be able to advise whether your case should be involved with a class action or be prosecuted individually. 

When a large number of people are hurt as a result of the conduct or negligence of others, the injured parties generally retain their individual right to seek compensation with a lawyer of their own choosing, in a court near their home.

For example, even though thousands of people have been harmed by asbestos, the cases that are prosecuted for asbestos-related injuries are done so on an individual basis.

However, a court will occasionally consolidate these individual cases for purposes of trial or pretrial proceedings. When this occurs, the individual still retains the right to decide whether or not to accept a settlement of his or her individual case and whether to try that case to completion before a jury.

Even though other cases may appear similar, they may not be handled in the same way, depending upon the circumstances and the court overseeing the case.

If a case is prosecuted or settled on a class action basis, the situation is quite different. In a class action, only a few representative plaintiffs are involved in the prosecution of the case on behalf of many others. The plaintiffs in the case represent themselves individually and all others who are similarly situated, and who may never become directly involved in the prosecution of the lawsuit itself.

However, the individuals represented by the prosecuting plaintiffs may be bound by the outcome of the trial, or they may be entitled to the benefits of any settlement reached.

Class actions are increasingly being used as a mean of resolving large numbers of claims. In fact, class actions are favored by some defendants precisely because they afford a mean of binding people to the terms of a settlement or the results of a trial.

Class actions historically involved commercial matters, not personal injury cases. In the past, these commercial class actions involved a situation where the amount of money at stake was so small that it would not pay for someone to prosecute a claim individually.

However, if the cases were combined together through a class action, the plaintiffs would be able to obtain adequate representation and fight the resources available to the defendant.

For example, if a company committed a fraud that led many people to lose $1,000, no single person would pursue his/her claim because the amount of damage is too small. The company would then be off the hook.

If the claims of many people were joined as a class action, then the company must face the prospect of paying a significant amount of money.

In class action cases, one or several individuals represent their claim on behalf of a larger group of similarly situated individuals who have been exposed to a common practice or course of conduct and have thus suffered the same damage or injury. Personal injuries cases may be consolidated as a mass tort for the purpose of efficiency. This usually happens if many individuals are injured as a result of a defective product or drug which typically produce a wide range of injuries. Mass tort cases allow attorneys to tap into the wider investigation associated with the defective product or drug, pooling resources for effectiveness.

If you are a member of a class, you may be bound by the results of a trial or settlement that is reached with the defendant, even though you did not participate in the prosecution of the case.

Certain kinds of classes allow you to exclude yourself and prosecute your case individually while others may not.

Consequently, an individual who did nothing may find that, by his or her inaction, he or she has become a member of a class action.

It is imperative that you consult a class action lawyer as soon as you believe that you may have a case. A knowledgeable class action lawyer can advise you on whether to prosecute your case individually or go through a class action.

In addition to protecting your ability to opt out of a class (if you are able to and so choose), there is also a statute of limitations that governs the time you have to bring a lawsuit. If you do not bring a case within that time period, you will be forever barred from obtaining compensation for your injury.