Class action lawsuits let many plaintiffs with the very similar problems group together and sue one defendant together as one. This allows individuals with otherwise small claims to group together and sue altogether.
For example, losing $50 to a dishonest company may not be enough to warrant a lawsuit. The damages are not high enough to warrant hiring an attorney, or to go to small claims court. However, if that same company dishonestly took $50 from 20,000 people, their combined claims would be worth $1,000,000.
Today, common class action lawsuits involve defective medical devices that may have been implanted on thousands of patients, defects in new automobiles, or a variety of other issues.
Most people only have a vague familiarity with class action lawsuits. You may have received a check in the mail one day for only a few dollars, stating that there was a class action lawsuit against a product you purchased a long time ago. That check is most likely part of a class action settlement, where the defendant settled the case and was then required to pay a portion of the settlement to every ascertainable member of the class.
History and Scope of Class Action Lawsuits
Class action lawsuits originated in the United States, though some European countries have made changes in the civil law allowing consumers to file similar claims. Originally, the essence of a class action lawsuit was to efficiently resolve legal disputes which affected a number of parties with similar claims. This aimed to save both the time and money for the courts and litigants.
The scope of class action lawsuit became broader with time. Today, class action lawsuits are a time-saving mechanism, which give otherwise helpless plaintiffs access to the legal system. Class action lawsuits have also been used to address injustice in education, housing, voting rights laws, race, gender, etc.
Members of a Class and Certification
A class-action lawsuit starts with one or more people claiming to represent an entire class of individuals. A class representative is a person or a group of people who start the class. The class representative proceeds behalf of all others involved in a class.
However, this claim must be certified by the court before the claims can move forward. The court looks at various factors in determining whether to certify a class. Among them, are whether the purported class has enough people, whether the alleged questions of law or fact are common to members of the purported class, and whether the claims raised by the class representatives are typical to the purported class.
For example, if a plaintiff gets into a car accident due to a defect in their newly purchased vehicle, and sues on behalf of the class for the damages that stemmed out of that defect. The personal injury claims will not survive class certification. The specific injuries that plaintiff suffered are not typical of the rest of the members of the class. Many have likely only driven the car with the defect without getting into an accident due to it, or if they got into an accident, suffered different injuries. However, the plaintiff could sue on the basis that their car was defective, as all members in that class should have the same defect in their vehicle, regardless of whether or not that defect caused an accident.
Class action judgments apply to every member of the class. Each member of the class is bound by the final decision no matter they ever appeared in court. Each member of the class receives some percentage of the total settlement or judgment. This can vary greatly depending on the harm alleged. Some class action lawsuits only recover a few dollars per plaintiff, and others may recover thousands per.
These differences often depend on the claim, but can also depend on the skills of the lawyers involved. An experienced class action litigant will be able to obtain a more favorable settlement than someone inexperienced.