A class action lawsuit is a form of civil procedure in which a single plaintiff, or a small group of plaintiffs, files a lawsuit on behalf of a larger group in order to recover damages from a defendant. The central tenant of a class action lawsuit is the belief that the defendant has “unjustly” enriched themselves at the expense of the plaintiff class and should be compelled to return that enrichment to their victims.
What Makes a Class Action Lawsuit Different?
Unlike a traditional civil lawsuit in which there is usually a single plaintiff filing a claim for damages against a single defendant, a class action lawsuit is brought by a single plaintiff who acts on behalf of all potential plaintiffs who are alleged to have suffered the same damages due to the defendants’ actions. It is left to the court’s discretion to certify the transformation of a single-plaintiff lawsuit into a class action proceeding.
Practically all class action lawsuits are heard in federal court, as provided under federal law (Rule 23, FRCP and 28 U.S.C.A. § 1332(d)). Additionally, a federal court may claim original jurisdiction if the amount of damages is greater than $5 million.
The History of Class Action Lawsuits
Legal scholars and historians usually identify the 12th or 13th century as the first recorded instance of what we would call a class action lawsuit. Initially, such lawsuits were filed on behalf of a village or town against some political or social adversary. Over time, these “group” or “collective” lawsuits were replaced by individual liability actions where private individuals were allowed to “stand in” for plaintiffs who were unable to directly participate in the judicial process.
The English civil litigation traditions survived the American Revolution and first entered the statutory (“written”) law in the early to mid-19th century as Equity Rule 48, which held that a special type of group litigation, known as representative litigation, could proceed when a large number of similar, individual, cases had been filed. A decade later, the Supreme Court further defined class action lawsuits by holding that individual plaintiffs did not have to be present in court for their lawsuits to be heard.
Class action Lawsuit Procedure
A class action lawsuit may be the preferred course of action in situations where:
- There exists a group of plaintiffs who are alleged to have been harmed to the same general extent by a specific act of the defendant(s).
- There is a single defendant or, at most, only a few defendants who are alleged to be responsible for such harm.
- The degree of harm suffered by individual plaintiffs is not sufficient to justify the filing of individual lawsuits but is, collectively, large enough that a defendant’s behavior should not go unpunished.
Once the facts of the potential class action have been investigated and found to be grounds for a larger lawsuit, the original plaintiff’s attorney will usually notify all other potential individual plaintiffs of the intent to refile the lawsuit as a class action. If the judge hearing the case decides that there are sufficient grounds for the lawsuit to proceed as a group or class action, he or she will certify the lawsuit to be a valid cause for class action. From this point onward, a class action resembles a traditional single plaintiff lawsuit.
Who Wins in a Class Action Lawsuit?
Many lawyers have argued that class action lawsuits represent the ultimate “money for nothing” scenario: participants in class action cases can receive at least a minimal settlement in exchange for very little, if any, “upfront” costs. However, that the lead plaintiff and counsel will likely receive a greater directed share of any award as compensation for expenses. Thus, after the lead plaintiff’s and counsel’s settlement, the remaining plaintiffs will receive relatively little.
If you have questions or concerns about a possible class action lawsuit, contact an Harrisonburg VA personal injury lawyer who practices in the relevant area of law. He or she can discuss the possibility of pursuing legal recourse in order to recover your damages.
Thanks to our friends and contributors from MartinWren P.C. for their insight class action and personal injury practice.