A “class action lawsuit” is a court case in which a large number of people join together to sue another person or company, or in which a large group of people or companies are being sued. In personal injury law, class action suits are frequently used to seek compensation for groups of people who have all suffered the same kind of injury caused by the same defendant.
For instance, people who have been injured or made sick by a particular drug may band together in a class action suit to sue the drug’s manufacturer. In this case, a class action lawsuit may be used because otherwise the drug’s manufacturer will have to defend each separate lawsuit brought by each individual member of the class. Since these separate lawsuits all cover the same type of injury, each one will be basically the same. It often saves the time, money and energy of everyone involved to bring all these cases together into one class action lawsuit.
A class action lawsuit may be brought under state law or federal law. U.S. federal courts automatically have jurisdiction over a class action lawsuit if the amount of damages claimed is over $5,000,000, and at least one of the following is also true:
- any plaintiff in the class is a citizen of a different state than any defendant;
- any plaintiff in the class is a citizen of a different country and any defendant is a citizen of the U.S.; or
- any plaintiff is a U.S. citizen and any defendant is a citizen of a different country.
The group of plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit may also be known as the “class.” If the class files a class action lawsuit in state court, but the lawsuit meets the requirements to be heard in federal court, the defendants may file a motion to have the case moved to federal court.
In order to form a class, all of the plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit must have suffered the same type of injury. Usually, a class action lawsuit is filed by a few named plaintiffs, who then file a motion to certify a class of people with the same injury.
In federal court, a group of plaintiffs can only be certified as a class if all of the following are true:
- the class is so large that individual lawsuits would not be practical;
- the class members all have a legal or factual claim in common – for instance, they all claim that the defendant breached its duty of care against each of them in the same way, or they all suffered the same illness or injury;
- the plaintiffs’ claims or the defendants’ affirmative defenses are typical of the class; and
- the named plaintiffs in the class action can adequately represent the interests of everyone in the class.
In some class action lawsuits, the court will also require that the class action lawsuit focus on the claims the class has in common, instead of veering off into the forest of differences among the class members. The court may also ask the plaintiffs to show that the class action is the best option for resolving the claims against the defendants. If motion to certify the class is granted, the case turns into a class action lawsuit.
However, the defendants can object to the creation of a class action for several reasons. For instance, the defendants can argue that the individual plaintiffs all have different kinds of injuries, and therefore trying the case as a single class action lawsuit would be too complicated. They may also argue that the plaintiffs named in the lawsuit don’t accurately represent the class – for example, they may have injuries that are different or more severe than those suffered by the rest of the class. Finally, the defendants may argue that the law firm chosen to represent the class doesn’t have the resources or skill to do the job properly.
If a class is certified, the members of that class must also receive notice about the case. The notice informs potential members of the class that a class action lawsuit has begun. It must also give the class members a chance to opt out of the class. If the class members stay in the class action lawsuit, they will not be able to sue the defendants individually on the same claim after the class action is finished. If the named plaintiffs and the defendants reach a settlement, all the members of the class must be informed about it.
A class action lawsuit may also be brought in many state courts. These cases are governed by the state law on class actions. Most states that allow state class actions use rules similar to the federal rules. One notable exception is California, which allows class actions but has very different rules for class actions in its state courts. Meanwhile, Virginia does not allow state class actions at all.
If the plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit succeed, they may be awarded damages similar to those awarded in regular personal injury lawsuits. The court may also award punitive damages if it finds the defendants’ acts were particularly harmful to the health or safety of the plaintiffs.