How a Class Action Lawsuit Works
You’ve undoubtedly heard about class action lawsuits in the news or in the movies. But, if you’re like most people, you probably don’t understand exactly how a class action works, how it’s different from other lawsuits, or why an injured party might choose the class action route.
Here’s what you need to know.
What is a Class Action Lawsuit?
A class action lawsuit is similar to a regular lawsuit, with one important difference. In a regular lawsuit, each individual plaintiff must prove their claim and prove the specific damages they suffered. Sometimes, a lawsuit will have more than one plaintiff, but they are typically closely related, with claims arising out of the same incident. For example, if one spouse is seriously injured in a car accident and the other spouse also suffers losses due to the injury, the two may jointly file a lawsuit. However, in this situation, each spouse still has to prove their individual damages.
In a class action suit, a large number of plaintiffs who suffered the same type of harm join in one lawsuit. Rather than proving individual damages, the plaintiffs’ attorneys negotiate one settlement to be divided among the class members. Similarly, if the case goes to trial, a pool of damages will be awarded.
Who Can File a Class Action Lawsuit?
Class action lawsuits aren’t technically filed as class actions. Instead, the lawsuit is filed and the plaintiffs request that the court grant class certification. Before the class can be certified as a class action, the court must determine that:
- There are too many plaintiffs for it to make sense for each of them to join the lawsuit as an individual separately proving claims and damages
- That the members of the class have common legal and factual issues to address in the lawsuit
- That the representative class members, also known as “named plaintiffs” adequately represent the rest of the class members and will protect their interests
The attorney who files the initial petition won’t necessarily be class counsel. To ensure adequate representation of the class’s interests, the court appoints an attorney to represent the class. To determine whether the attorney who is pursuing class certification is the right choice, the court will look at things like the investigation and legal work the attorney has done in preparation of the case and and the attorney’s experience and resources.
Getting a class certified can be difficult, so it’s important to have the right attorney at the helm from the beginning. Otherwise, the case may never move to the next stage.
Advantages of a Class Action Lawsuit
Class action lawsuits offer a few key advantages in certain types of cases. First, a class action may provide a way for many people who have suffered small harms to pursue compensation. Imagine, for example, that a certain ski boot is poorly designed. Due to this design flaw, thousands or tens of thousands of users sprain their ankles.
They all suffer some pain and inconvenience, and most have medical bills. But, economically, it doesn’t amount to much. Most people’s medical bills are less than $1,000. And, most didn’t miss any work, or just a day or two. Each individual has a problem in trying to seek compensation: the cost of an expert witness to establish that a design flaw caused the injury will be much greater than the damages any individual might hope to recover. In that situation, many injured boot purchasers might miss out on getting fair compensation. And, the company would have little incentive to correct the problem, since they weren’t being held accountable.
A class action suit can offer a solution to this problem. Just one or two expert witnesses can establish the design flaw and its role in causing the injury for thousands of plaintiffs. One law firm can manage a single case for the benefit of all class members.
Another advantage for class action plaintiffs is that most class members never have to actively participate in the lawsuit. Class counsel and the named plaintiffs carry the weight of moving the case forward, and the remaining class members share in the settlement or verdict.
What if I Want to File My Own Lawsuit?
At some point, you’ve probably received a notice that you may be a member of a class that’s been certified. If you have been identified as a class member, you will automatically be included in the class action unless you opt out. That means you will lose your right to pursue an individual lawsuit.
For most class members, it makes more sense to remain in the class and collect the check or other compensation. But, some people believe they can do better on their own, or have additional related claims they want to include in the lawsuit, or have suffered greater damages. For example, imagine that one of the boot purchasers who suffered a sprained ankle was a professional dancer, and being unable to dance for two weeks resulted in her being replaced in the cast of a production heading out on an international tour. While most of the plaintiffs lost a few hundred dollars in urgent care costs and maybe a day or two of work, this particular plaintiff lost a $250,000 contract.
For her, it will likely make sense to pursue an individual lawsuit. To preserve that right, she has to opt out of the class action during the time allowed.
Pursuing a Class Action Claim
It may be difficult to know whether your claim is a possible class action. If you’ve been harmed by a defective product or in some other way that may be common to many other people, your best next step is to talk to a products liability or personal injury attorney who also handles class action cases.
Schedule a free consultation right now by calling 210-934-8091, filling out the contact form on this site, or clicking in the right-hand sidebar to chat.
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