What Is A Class Action Lawsuit?

What Is A Class Action Lawsuit?

You’ve probably seen the ads on TV or received notices in the mail. They recount some slight, real or perceived, committed against you in ways you may not even realize. We don’t always understand the details of the complaint, but we recognize the concluding call to action:

“If you believe you’ve been harmed… call us to join this class action lawsuit!”

If you never used the medicine they identified, purchased the vehicle they condemned or underwent the procedure they described, you probably don’t think much about these notices. You move on. But what if that is you? What if you did use that medicine, own that truck, undergo that treatment, and some of the problems they detailed sound far too familiar as a result? What then?

You could just call the number or return the form and hope for the best, or you could prepare yourself with a little more information about the system as a whole. What is a class action lawsuit and how does it, you know… work?

You’re probably familiar with traditional lawsuits. If you think someone has committed a documentable offense against you, you may take that person or company to court and attempt to resolve the issue there. Sometimes, however, you may lack the resources to pursue such a suit effectively. Or, it may seem the damage done to you is not severe enough to justify finding against the perpetrator.

On the other hand, if it turns out that the same entity has committed similar offenses against others as well, especially if they’ve done so intentionally or with willful neglect, your case is suddenly much stronger. Rather than gathering thousands of victims, each with their own lawyers, a class action suit is filed, with a single attorney or firm operating on behalf of the whole. Often, these attorneys are only paid if the suit is successful, claiming a percentage of the award; there’s no financial risk to the claimants.  

The process is otherwise similar to traditional lawsuits. A complaint is filed. Defendants are served and respond. The “discovery” process begins. In some situations, the judge may decide there’s not enough evidence to go forward. Otherwise, if the judge decides at that stage to let the case proceed, that’s when those TV ads, mailers, or other mass media begin. They’re a search for others impacted by the case.

Sometimes a settlement is reached before the trial; otherwise, the case is decided just like any other. If monetary damages are assigned, they’re distributed among all participating claimants. They’re often fairly hefty, even if the amount received by individuals is not, intended not only to compensate the victims but to discourage companies from similar neglect in the future.

Bonnie Baldwin