Practically everybody has heard of a class action lawsuit. You may have even received a letter in the mail notifying you that you may join a class action lawsuit because of a product or service you used in the past. Some of the largest class action lawsuits in history have resulted in multi-billion-dollar settlements. Enron settled for securities fraud, Volkswagen for an emissions scandal, BP for the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, and the largest class action of all: Big Tobacco settling for over $200 billion.
There have also been massive mass tort settlements such as the $10 billion Bayer paid to resolve approximately 100,000 Roundup herbicide toxic exposure lawsuits.
Both mass tort and class actions are legal procedural actions that involve a large group of plaintiffs that have allegedly been harmed as a result of negligence. In both a mass tort and class action, there is a common defendant or defendants that allegedly caused some type of harm to the group of plaintiffs.
Another similarity between the two procedural actions is that in order to make the legal system run more efficiently, mass tort and class action lawsuits are not tried individually. Instead, they are consolidated into one legal action.
The biggest difference between the two procedural actions is how they are treated. Plaintiffs in a mass tort are treated as individuals. In a mass tort, the facts and circumstances surrounding the plaintiffs’ claim, such as history of product usage and injuries, are not common enough to be considered a class action. This is why individuals in a mass tort file their cases individually.
In comparison, in a class action, the plaintiffs—known as ‘the class’—are treated as one plaintiff and are represented in the legal proceedings by a class representative. In a class action, the plaintiffs’ circumstances are similar enough to be treated as one plaintiff. Class action members do not have to take any action to be included in the settlement, they just have to be a member of the affected class as decided by the court.
Also, in a class action, the plaintiffs may join even if they have not been physically harmed. An example of this scenario would be a product recall; it’s possible that some people may have been harmed by a device, but not all members of the class have to be injured to proceed with a lawsuit.
As mentioned, plaintiffs in a mass tort file their cases individually. Should the mass tort proceed in the legal process, the individual suits would be consolidated into a multidistrict litigation (MDL) by the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation (JPML).
MDLs allow the legal system to run more efficiently. In an MDL, certain individual cases are selected for a “bellwether” trial or trials, which serve as a test case and shape the outcome of future cases. If the jury in the MDL (or MDLs) finds the defendant liable, the defendant may opt to settle future lawsuits.
Generally, joining a class action lawsuit is much easier. A class notice will instruct you on how to join. Sometimes, people are automatically joined and only need to follow the instructions on the notice in order to submit a claim. Some types of class actions are “opt-in” cases, which means you have to elect to join the class. Wage and hourly-pay cases are an example of an opt-in class action.
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