A class-action lawsuit is an option when a large number of people have suffered essentially the same harm from the actions of a single defendant (or group of defendants). In such cases, instead of numerous people filing their own separate lawsuits, these suits may be grouped together into a single large lawsuit known as a class action. In the event of a settlement or a victory at trial, any compensation is then shared amongst all members of the class.
How and when a class-action lawsuit should be filed varies according to the specific legislation and court rules of procedure in different jurisdictions. In general, however, it is an option only if several basic criteria can be met by the prospective plaintiffs. Rule 23 of the United States Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which governs class-action litigation in the American federal court system, sets out four such criteria. First, there must be so many prospective plaintiffs that it would be impractical for the courts to hear all of their cases individually. Second, those plaintiffs must seek redress on a common matter, on which it would be possible for a court to rule for or against all class members at the same time. Third, the arguments made by the “representative parties” who are launching the lawsuit must be reasonably similar to those which would be made by other class members if they were all proceeding independently. Finally, the court must be confident that the representative parties will act responsibly in advocating for the interests of the rest of the class.
It is easy to read these as highly restrictive criteria, but the guiding principle at work is that it has to be feasible for a judge to issue a ruling granting or denying compensation to all members of the group for suffering essentially the same wrongdoing. If the experiences of the people harmed are too different to consider on such a large scale, then a class action may not be possible.
In theory there is no upper limit to the size of a class. Several years ago, advocates of women’s equality launched what was widely billed as the largest class-action lawsuit in history against Wal-Mart, arguing that the retail giant underpays and under-promotes its female employees. Millions of women potentially could have benefited. However, the United States Supreme Court ruled that female employees could not proceed as a single class because their experiences working at Wal-Mart were simply too different to be joined together as a single class. The Supreme Court did not conclude that Wal-Mart’s upper management was not sexist – it simply found that even if it was sexist, it could not be pursued via a class action.
If a group of people feel that a class-action lawsuit is their best option, the next step is to approach lawyers with experience in class actions. Because of their size and complexity, class-action suits can be simply overwhelming for those without the experience or the time necessary to invest in pursuing them. It is not unusual for disadvantaged groups to turn to legal advocacy organizations or law schools to assist them, if the people hoping to start the class action – known as the “representative parties” – lack the resources to retain specialized lawyers or the knowledge of where to find them. In 2012, for instance, Yale Law School launched a class action on behalf of Vietnam veterans with undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Next, the class action suit begins when it is filed on behalf of the representative parties. This initial stage is unlike other types of lawsuits. The plaintiffs’ lawyers will attempt to persuade the judge that the proposed class exists and is sufficiently large to merit moving forward. Naturally, at this stage, the defendants can be expected to object that the lawsuit fails to meet one or more of the criteria for a class action described above.
If the court approves the class action, the next step is to contact potential members of the class. These are other people – potentially large numbers of the general public – who have suffered the same alleged harm, under similar conditions, and may therefore be eligible to share in the compensation. Different jurisdictions spell out how this process must occur. In general, the law firm handling the suit must publish notices in various formats, like newspapers and television advertisements, notifying the public that the action is proceeding and inviting people to join it. This is a vitally important stage, because depending upon the rules of the court, people who do not explicitly refuse to join the class may not be allowed to press their claims independently later on.
Once a class action lawsuit has been filed and accepted by the court, it proceeds largely the same as other civil lawsuits. However, these first steps can be both complex and confusing. For this reason, it is important to know how and when to file a class-action lawsuit before considering whether a class action is the best solution to a legal problem. People considering starting or joining a class action should seek advice from a qualified lawyer, who can give professional legal advice tailored to their specific situation.