Products Liability FAQ

Class Actions

Introduction

Tobacco companies, contraceptive device manufacturers, breast implant makers, and diet drug manufacturers to name only a few - these are all companies that have found themselves on the receiving end of class action lawsuits. A class action lawsuit involves many plaintiffs, only one or a few of which are actually named in the complaint, who bring similar claims against the same defendants, and who divide up the damages that are recovered. A class action suit may be the best way to pursue a claim and ensure a winning outcome, or it could result in lesser damages than would be recovered when suing on an individual basis.

An attorney experienced in both products liability or personal injury as well as class action law can help determine whether you should be a member of an existing class or whether you should opt out and sue on your own. Perhaps you are even the person to get the ball rolling and initiate an action on behalf of an entire class. The right attorney can provide you with all the information you need to make the right decision, as well as skilled and effective representation throughout the entire legal process, in order to ensure that you secure the compensation to which you are entitled.

When Many Individuals Have Similar Claims Against the Same Defendants, a Class Action May Be the Best Way to Proceed

A class action lawsuit is a case in which there are one or more persons named as plaintiffs in the complaint, the document that officially starts the lawsuit, but the case is actually pursued on behalf of many other persons with similar claims. The persons named on the complaint are the class representatives, and their claims must arise from circumstances similar to those of the other class members.

Before a class action may proceed in court, the court must certify the class, or group of plaintiffs bringing the claims. A court may certify a class if it determines that there are too many potential plaintiffs against the same defendant or defendants for them all to be individually named as parties. Generally, individual plaintiffs need not take any formal action to join in the litigation, but rather they automatically become members unless they formally opt out. Rarely, a class action will be limited to those plaintiffs who expressly choose to opt in. Potential class members are often notified by letter informing them in writing of any action they need to take. The plaintiffs in a class action are usually bound by the verdict or settlement reached in the case. If an individual chooses to opt out of the class, however, he or she may pursue his claims on an individual basis and will not be bound by the results of the class action, or a plaintiff may hire his or her own lawyer and try to intervene in the class action suit.

The decision whether to be a member of the class or file an individual suit depends on various factors. Although being the member of a large and therefore more powerful class may bode well for winning the lawsuit, often class action damages are small once divided among the many individual plaintiffs. If a particular plaintiff has significant damages, it may be prudent to seek individual counsel and pursue the claim apart from the class.

Because individual damages may be small in class actions, but the attorneys representing the class may collect a percentage of the damages recovered by all of the many plaintiffs, class action lawsuits are sometimes subject to criticism. Critics—often the insurance companies who have to cover the claims—argue that the only ones who really stand to gain from class action suits are the lawyers, not the injured parties. Such criticism is, however, largely unjustified. Many lawsuits would never be brought if not litigated as class actions, since most lawyers would not take a case involving only minimal damages. Further, all attorney fee awards in class action suits are subject to court review and approval, which reduces if not eliminates the risk of excessive fee awards.

The Steps of a Class Action Lawsuit

A class action suit is initiated by the filing of a complaint with the court, and delivering a copy of the same on the defendant or defendants. The complaint sets forth the facts of the case and enumerates the claims that the plaintiffs have, as well as the damages they seek. The defendants must answer the complaint within a certain time frame, or they may ask the court to dismiss the plaintiffs' claim if they believe it is without merit or based on some other alleged infirmity in the case.

If the court allows the case to proceed, the parties will engage in discovery, during which they exchange relevant documents, submit questions to each other that require timely responses, and conduct depositions, during which sworn testimony is taken from parties or potential witnesses. During this discovery phase, either party may move for summary judgment, arguing to the court that no trial is necessary in order to resolve the case because everyone agrees on the facts, and based on those facts it is clear that one party is entitled to win. Motions for summary judgment are vigorously opposed by the other side, and the court will not grant such a motion if it believes that there are any questions of fact that should be resolved at a trial or that the side moving for judgment in its favor is not so entitled under the applicable law.

When discovery is complete, the plaintiffs file a motion to certify a class action. Generally, the defendants will oppose certification. The court holds a pretrial hearing on the matter. If the plaintiffs win, the case proceeds to certification. The court will then order that notice be provided to the class members. Notice may be published in a newspaper or provided by mail. The notice must inform the class members of their rights and set deadlines for objecting, opting out, or entering an individual appearance through an attorney.

After the court grants final certification, the parties may engage in additional discovery, if needed before the case can go to trial. After discovery is completed, the parties will often attempt to reach an out-of-court settlement, but if they are unable to settle, the matter is set for trial. The trial of a class action then proceeds in a manner similar to any other lawsuit.

Conclusion

If you think you may be a member of a large group of people who were injured by the same product, it would be prudent to seek legal counsel right away. When seeking an attorney to represent you, be sure to investigate his or her background not only in class action litigation, but also in products liability law. Don't be afraid to ask questions about his or her track record so that you can make an informed decision about whether this is the right person to steadfastly stand up against a big company that may have many more resources than you do to fight the claims against it. Only with a skilled and seasoned advocate on your side can you be sure to achieve an outcome that best compensates you for your losses.

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