As discussed in another post in this blog, class action lawsuits are used only in regard to civil (rather than criminal) cases, and are often used in cases of involving dangerous products or product liability. If a large number of people suffer physical or psychological harm because of a manufacturer’s products, or the actions or inactions of a service provider, these individuals may band together as a “class” and file suit to recover damages.
One member of the class, usually the person who initially approached an attorney with the idea of bringing a class action, may be listed in court documents as the “lead plaintiff” or “representative plaintiff.” Other people may join the class as well. The class sues the manufacturer or service provider as a group, and any damages awarded are subsequently divided among all the members of the class. The amount received by each class member depends upon the size of the class, the degree of damage suffered by each person, and any stipulations or limits mandated by the court. Class action suits can be very successful in garnering monetary compensation for damages suffered by the class as well.
Class action lawsuits must be approved as such by the court, and must go through several steps before going to trial. These steps include:
Certification: A judge must formally certify the group of people who have suffered similar damages as a “class.”
Defining the class: The judge defines the characteristics of people eligible to join the class, including the damages which must have been suffered in order to qualify for inclusion in the class.
Notification: The judge orders that potential class members (plaintiffs) be notified of the class action. This may be done through direct mail, email,newspaper, television and/or radio advertisements, or even social media, depending on the breadth of the scope of the class.
Opting out: Potential plaintiffs are automatically included as class members, and are bound by any ultimate final judgment. But eligible class members may also opt out of the class, and may even bring their own lawsuits.
Appointing counsel: The judge then appoints appropriate counsel for the plaintiffs in the class. This is typically the attorney or law firm that initially filed the case. The judge, however, has the responsibility to ensure that counsel is experienced in class action proceedings, knowledgeable in the issues addressed in the case, and will represent the class well and fairly.
Distribution of damages: If and when the class wins the case, the judge will devise a plan for distributing any monetary awards. If the case is settled before trial, a judge still must formally approve the settlement. The judge also determines how (and how much) the attorneys are paid.