You've likely heard about class action lawsuits when they've been advertised on television, the radio or online. But what exactly is a class action lawsuit, how long does it take to file one, and could you be a part of one of these historical cases? 

What Is a Class Action Lawsuit?

The Federal Rule of Civil Procedure's Rule 23 "Class Actions," allows one or more members of a class (group) to sue or be sued as representative parties of all members of the group.

A complex type of lawsuit, a class action is a legal procedural device that enables one civil plaintiff (or more) to sue the defendant(s) on behalf of a "class" or larger group that has been similarly impacted by the defendant's actions. In other words, with a class action lawsuit, a single person (or a small group) can sue on behalf of a much larger group of similarly affected individuals. 

Class action lawsuits expedite proceedings in which a defendant's negligence has impacted a large group, sometimes hundreds of thousands of people, in the same way. Without a class action lawsuit, each individual's case would have to be filed and prosecuted separately which would be incredibly time-consuming and expensive. By filing class action lawsuits in these situations, large groups of victims can receive compensation much more quickly and with less expense while limiting the strain on the court system. 

Additionally, class action suits can be beneficial for plaintiffs in cases where a pattern of neglect (i.e. employment discrimination or lending discrimination) must be established and proven as a primary basis of a claim. 

Characteristics and Criteria of Class Action Lawsuits

Class action lawsuits involve:

  • Lead or Named Plaintiff - The person or people filing the suit
  • Class Members - Individuals who are affected by the suit and its allegations and who will be included in any judgment or settlement
  • Defendant - The person, people, company, or companies being sued

Class actions lawsuits typically include the following criteria:

  • All of the individuals involved have common factual or legal questions.
  • Consistent claims or defenses
  • The representative parties (i.e. the individual(s) filing the class action suit) can fairly and adequately represent the interests of the entire class.
  • The class (group) is large enough that it would be impractical to include each person individually. 

Common Types of Class Action Lawsuits

Class action lawsuits can arise in a variety of situations. Some of the most common types of class action suits include:

  • Dangerous Products Class Actions - When products that come without warning and appear to be safe turn out to be dangerous, those who have suffered personal injury as a result of those products can participate in a class action suit. 
  • Dangerous Pharmaceuticals Class Actions - Additionally, pharmaceuticals that are dangerous, causing personal injury, can result in class action suits against pharmaceutical companies. 
  • Other Consumer Class Actions - Consumers can also bring claims for consumer fraud, false advertising, antitrust violations or otherwise defective products. 
  • Environmental Class Actions - When an entity's negligence results in environmental damage or harm or harm to people via environmental contaminants, impacted individuals can file a class action suit to recover damages. 
  • Securities Fraud Class Actions - When improper conduct of a company or its board members results in damages to multiple investors. 
  • Accounting Fraud Class Actions - When fraudulent accounting or misleading reporting results in losses, investors can come together to file a class action lawsuit to recover losses. 
  • Employment Class Actions - Workers can come together to pursue a class action suit against a large company or employer that has discriminated or otherwise violated employment laws. 
  • Breach of Contract Class Actions - When promises are made to large groups of people in writing and then broken, a class action lawsuit can be filed on behalf of the entire group. 

Famous Examples of Class Action Lawsuits

There are numerous examples of class action lawsuits. Some of the biggest have been highly publicized and are quite well-known.

United States vs. Bernard L. Madoff

Bernard (Bernie) Madoff, a money manager and financier, implemented the largest Ponzi scheme in history. Over the course of at least 17 years, he defrauded more than 40,000 investors out of billions of dollars.  In 2009, Madoff was forced to forfeit about $170 billion in restitution and sentenced to 150 years in prison. 

Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement

In 1998, the United States tobacco companies Phillip Morris Inc., R.J. Reynolds, Lorillard, and Brown & Williamson) settled with the attorneys general of 46 states. They agreed to end certain marketing practices. Additionally, they agreed, in perpetuity, to pay annual payments to compensate the states for medical costs related to smoking. The total settlement amount rang in at $206 billion. 

Fen-Phen Diet Drugs

Before Fen-Phen was pulled from the market in 1997, approximately six million people in the United States had used the diet drug that had been associated with heart valve damage that could be fatal. In 2000, a settlement of $3.75 billion was reached, providing up to $1.5 million to former users based on how long they used the drug and the injuries they incurred. 

Breast Implant Manufacturers

In the mid-1990s, claims came up against several manufacturers of silicone breast implants that the materials exposed women to connective tissue disorders and autoimmune diseases. These claims resulted in a class action suit that came up against manufacturers such as Dow Corning and Bristol-Myers Squibb. The suit was eventually settled for $3.4 billion.

BP Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster occurred on April 20, 2010, in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of the United States. The largest oil spill in history, an estimated 210 million gallons of oil were discharged into the gulf. In 2016, approval was given to a $20 billion settlement to resolve civil and government claims of environmental damage that occurred as a result of the spill. 

Do You Need an Attorney to File a Class Action Lawsuit?

Class action lawsuits are highly complex and time-consuming pursuits. Filing and prosecuting a class action suit can be both an intricate and drawn-out process. It is necessary to work with a lawyer who has experience in class action litigation in addition to experience in personal injury law or the specific type of law that is most applicable to the case at hand. 

What Does It Take to File a Class Action Lawsuit? The Steps of a Class Action Lawsuit

1. Due Diligence

When a client brings a potential class action lawsuit to an attorney, the lawyer must first evaluate whether or not the case qualifies as a class action lawsuit. During this first phase, the lawyer will conduct research to determine:

  • How many additional people might have been injured, harmed or impacted in the same way as the lead. 
  • Make sure an individual lawsuit wouldn't be the better option for the client.
  • Determine whether any lawsuit with the same allegations already exists. 
  • Research previous, similar claims to determine whether the rulings were successful.
  • Ensure the client can still file a claim under the local statute of limitations.
  • Verify that the defendant has not filed for bankruptcy, shielding them from liability. 

If any suit is considered to be frivolous, it will likely be dismissed. For this reason, this first step is crucial to gathering information, speaking with potential class members, researching current and previous lawsuits, and determining whether the claim qualifies to be filed as a class action lawsuit. 

2. File a Lawsuit

Once the proper due diligence has been performed, an attorney can then draft a complaint. This is a legal document that outlines the case's facts and the damages that are being sought while defining the class of individuals who will be covered in the lawsuit and demarking them on a state-wide or nationwide basis. The complaint is officially filed in court. 

3. Certify the Class

Class certification occurs after the complaint has been filed in court. Although an attorney presents the lawsuit as a class action, it will not officially be considered a class action lawsuit right away. At this time, it is known as a putative class action, a lawsuit that is presumed to be a class action lawsuit but that has not been officially issued a class certification ruling. 

Before issuing a class certification ruling, the judge presiding over the case will evaluate the case's details to ensure that the lawyers who are representing the plaintiffs and class members have satisfied a variety of requirements. For example, they must demonstrate that the size of the class is large enough that individual suits would be inefficient and impractical; the class members must share common legal and factual concerns; the plaintiff's complaints must be typical of all the class members; and the class must be adequately represented by their legal representatives. 

4. Discovery

The discovery phase of a class action lawsuit is similar to that of other types of lawsuits. It's all about research and investigation. During the discovery phase, attorneys are responsible for gathering as much information and evidence as they can that is pertinent to the circumstances and events of the lawsuit. This might include subpoenaing documents from defendants, requesting documents from plaintiffs, conducting interviews and carrying out depositions. 

5. Resolution of Claims

Class action lawsuits can be resolved either through a settlement or a trial. 

Often class action lawsuits are settled before they go to trial. Settlements often include restitution payments or larger funds that are established to compensate victims with scheduled payments over a longer period of time. 

When a class action lawsuit does not reach a settlement, it goes to trial to be tried before a jury in a court of law. When a case goes to trial, plaintiffs, other class members, or witnesses might be asked to testify. If a settlement is not reached throughout the trial process, then the case goes to the jury, and the jury is tasked with finding in favor of the defendant or the class members. 

When class action lawsuits go to trial and are not settled, the process can become quite lengthy. The trial process presents opportunities for defendants to appeal a jury's decision, tying up damages payments with further court dates and litigation. 

6. Notifying Class Members

Notifying class members is a step in the class action lawsuit process that can sometimes occur twice (once immediately after class certification and again after the case has been resolved). Sometimes, however, class members are only notified after the lawsuit's resolution. 

A class member notice describes the underlying facts of a class action lawsuit and the people who might qualify to claim a portion of the settlement. A class member notice also includes a settlement deadline by which class members must collect their compensation. If they do not collect compensation by this deadline, then the remaining money might be returned to the defendant, distributed among class members who submitted their claims on time, or donated to a cause that aligns with that of the lawsuit. 

How Long Does the Class Action Lawsuit Process Take?

Class action lawsuits are highly complex and require a lengthy process of preparation, negotiation, and litigation. As a result, class action lawsuits typically take about two to three years to reach a settlement. While some class action cases reach a settlement within months, others can be drawn out for several years if the defendant decides to appeal a court ruling. 

What to Do If You or a Loved One Has Been Impacted by a Class Action Suit

If you or a loved one has been impacted by a class action lawsuit (i.e. you've received a notice or your legal rights have been affected), you typically only need to get involved by submitting a claim. Instructions for submitting claims are included in your class member notice and are usually submitted either electronically or by postal mail. 

If you have suffered an injury, harm or other damages and believe you belong to a larger group of affected individuals, then we recommend contacting an attorney at The Cochran Firm to discuss your case and determine whether or not your complaint is emblematic of a much larger group of plaintiffs. 

The Cochran Firm: Experienced Advocates to Guide You Through the Class Action Lawsuit Process

At The Cochran Firm, our team of experienced and knowledgeable attorneys takes your case seriously. We have extensive expertise, powerful resources and a long history of positive results handling some of the most complex types of class action lawsuits. If you or a loved one has suffered an injury, harm or other damages as a result of a dangerous product, pharmaceutical, environmental negligence, fraud, breach of contract or employer, and you believe that others have suffered just like you, then you might have a certifiable class action complaint. 

We encourage you to contact The Cochran Firm for a free consultation to discuss your concerns and let our experts help you determine the best course of action to seek the fullest financial compensation.