Holding Corporations Accountable: LawInfo's Top 10 Class Action Lawsuits

A class action lawsuit occurs when one or more members of a large group, or class, take legal action against a company or other entity whose actions have damaged the class members in a similar way. Class action lawsuits can produce huge settlements or awards, based upon the number of members in the lawsuit even though the actual damages going to the individual class member may be relatively small.

There have been numerous high profile class action lawsuits over the years. Many of those big class actions involve securities fraud (when shareholders sue a company and its officers for wrongdoing that devalues the shareholders investment). Other famous class action lawsuits relate to pharmaceutical drugs, credit card abuses, and dangerous or unhealthy products (like the tobacco and breast implant litigation).

LawInfo has selected some "favorite" class action lawsuits over the past few years. Below is our list of the top ten class action lawsuits either won, settled, pending, or in terms of damages sought. (Note: although corporations may be found legally and financially responsible for damages in these types of cases, almost always when settled rather than going to trial, the settlement agreements stipulate that the defendant did not admit to any wrongdoing.)

1. Master Tobacco Settlement Agreement - (1998) $206 billion over 25 years

Each individual state, represented by that state’s Attorney General, filed suit against each of the top 6 tobacco companies in state court. To settle the individual suits, tobacco companies Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corporation, Lorillard Tobacco Company, Philip Morris Incorporated, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, Commonwealth Tobacco, and Liggett & Myers entered into a joint settlement.

The individual lawsuits were filed under the different states’ consumer protection and anti-trust laws for the recovery of smoking related healthcare costs covered by each state under their Medicare/Medicaid programs, and to enforce laws designed to reduce smoking by those less than 18 years of age. Under the settlement agreement, the tobacco companies agreed to:

  • Refrain from directly or indirectly advertising to persons under the age of 18
  • Refrain from using cartoons in any tobacco related advertisements, and
  • Refrain from sponsoring concerts, athletic teams and events, and events where participants or spectators are under the age of 18.

Over the years, the tobacco companies had faced individual class action lawsuits. For instance, 'Big Tobacco' was slammed with a $10.2B verdict in the Illinois class action case of Price v. Philip Morris Inc. The Master Settlement Agreement released the tobacco companies from further litigation in state courts.

2. Dukes v. Wal-Mart Stores - (Filed 2000) N.D.C.A. seeking $11 billion.

A female employee is suing for sexual discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 because after several years of excellent work evaluations, she was denied a promotion. Case was converted to class action status to represent every female employee from 1998 onwards. This case is pending.

3. Enron, Inc. - (2006, Texas) $7.2 billion

Investors in Enron corporate stock filed lawsuits under both federal and state securities laws against Enron Corporation, individual Enron officers and directors, Enron’s accountant Arthur Anderson, individual Arthur Anderson partners and employees, and Enron’s former law firm Vinson & Elkins. The lawsuit’s primary contention was that Enron engaged in fraud by concealing from investors losses by Enron-controlled special purpose entities (the Raptors). Because Enron’s primary corporate losses were attributed to these entities, those losses were not disclosed in annual reports or SEC filings. In total, the $7.2 billion in settlements reached by Enron to compensate shareholders whose stock became worthless during the company collapse is the largest payout to date in a shareholder securities class action.

4. World Com, Inc. - (2004-2005, New York) $6.2 billion

This class action lawsuit represented investors who held World Com stock from April 29, 1999 through June 25, 2002. Lawsuits were initiated against World Com, and individual employees Bernard Ebbers (CEO), Scott Sullivan (CFO) David Myers (Controller) and Buford Yates (Accounting Director) for fraud. The main charges of fraud stemmed from improperly classifying expenses as “capital costs” and inflating revenue statements with false entries. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) later stated that the earnings and assets had been falsely stated by over $11 billion.

5. Exxon Mobil Corp. -- (1994 - 2001, Alaska) $5 billion punitive damages award (reduced in 2001 to $500+ million)

This class action lawsuit related to the Exxoon Valdez oipl spil affecting thousands of people and over 1,300 miles of coastline. A federal judge ordered ExxonMobil to pay the $6.75 billion in punitive damages and interest to thousands of commercial fishermen, cannery workers, land owners, Alaska Natives and others who were harmed by the spill.

6. Breast Implant Litigation - (1994) $3.4 billion

After years of litigation claiming women suffered autoimmune disease from their silicone breast implants, the major breast implant manufacturers (Corning, Baxter, Bristol-Meyers Squibb/MEC, 3M) settled the class action litigation for $3.4 billion. At the time, it was the largest class action lawsuit in history.

7. Tyco International Ltd.. - (2005-2007, New Jersey ) $3.2 billion

A series of class action lawsuits were filed against Tyco International Ltd., former officers and directors of Tyco, and PricewaterhouseCoopers, alleging that these individuals and entities made false and misleading public statements and omitted material information about Tyco's finances in violation of Sections 10(b), 14, 20A and 20(a) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934.

8. Cendant Corp. - (2000, New Jersey ) $3.1 billion

A lawsuit representing all investors who held stock in Cendant from May 31, 1995 through and including August 28, 1991 was filed against the company for securities fraud. In 1998, Cendant disclosed that for the past 10 years the company had been fraudulently overstating its income by up to $500 million. Executives created false profit statements which caused an increase in the value of the company’s stock. When the false profits were discovered, the value of the company collapsed. In addition to being sentenced to jail, former Vice-Chairman Kirk Shelton was ordered to reimburse Cendant $3.27 billion, with a multi-million dollar upfront payment and monthly payments of $2,000.00 once he gets out of prison.

9. AOL Time Warner - (2005, New York ) $2.5 billion

Investors in AOL Time Warner stock sued the company for fraud under federal securities law. The company improperly accounted for dozens of advertising transactions between 1998 and 2002. The improper transactions created the appearance that they were generating revenue when in reality were just shifting money back and forth. The false earnings statements inflated the company’s value by $1.7 billion.

10. Nortel Networks - (2006, New York ) $2.4 billion

Two separate class actions covered investors who held Nortel stock from October 24, 2000 through February 15, 2001, and from April 24, 2003 through April 27, 2004. The lawsuits were filed under federal securities laws for fraud. Nortel was a leading supplier of fiber optic equipment to emerging internet companies. After the internet bust caused the company’s sales to vanish, the company started creating false accounting entries showing steady equipment sales. When the fraud was uncovered, Nortel’s stock eventually fell to $0.47 from a high of $124.00.

Other Notable Cases - LawInfo's "Runners Up" in billion dollar settlements/verdicts

Royal Ahold - (2005) $1+ billion

A class action lawsuit alleging violation of federal securities laws through fraud was filed against Royal Ahold, individual officers and directors of Ahold, Ahold investment bankers Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, ING and several other outside advisors.

The class represented investors who held Royal Ahold stock from July 30, 1999 through February 23, 2003. The alleged fraud consisted of accounting manipulations by a U.S. subsidiary, U.S. Food Service. Executives used inflated promotional rebates from suppliers as income. This caused the company in 2003 to restate earnings by more than $800 million covering 2000 to 2002.

Zyprexa Class Actions -- (through 2007 ) $1+ billion

Numerous individual and class action lawsuits were filed against Eli Lilly & Co., the makers of Zyprexa, regarding severe side effects suffered by patients including diabetes, pancreatitis, increased risk of suicide and other diseases. Eli Lilly was also charged with not only FDA violations and overzealous marketing of the drug, but also that it knew of the dangerous side effects and failed to warn the public of the risk.

Initial Public Offerings Litigation - (1998, New York ) 1+ billion

A master settlement agreement was entered into covering 309 separate class actions involving the sale of initial public offerings (IPO) of 309 separate companies. Plaintiffs claimed that 22 investment banks who underwrote the sale of the IPO’s illegally sold the IPO shares by forcing interested purchasers to buy additional shares at double or greater the cost of the share. These tactics forced investors to buy more than they wished, increased the demand for the shares which increased their cost, and eliminated all risk for the investment banks. In a normal IPO, the underwriter has usually guaranteed to its client, the company issuing the shares, that they will purchase all unsold shares after the IPO has expired. The banks’ tactics guaranteed that there would not be any unsold shares and increased the banks’ profits at the expense of investors.

Zyprexa Class Actions - (through 2007 ) $1+ billion

Lawsuits were filed against Eli Lilly & Co., the makers of Zyprexa, regarding severe side effects suffered by patients including diabetes, pancreatitis, increased risk of suicide and other diseases. Eli Lilly was also charged with not only FDA violations and overzealous marketing of the drug, but also that it knew of the dangerous side effects and failed to warn the public of the risk.

In re Visa Check/ MasterCard - (2003) $1+ billion

This case was an antitrust class action settlement regarding Visa and MasterCard’s “honor all cards” rules. Merchants sued the companies alleging that the policies unfairly required them to accept signature debit cards the same as credit cards at the same transaction fee. As a result, merchants paid billions of dollars in excess fees as for debit-card transactions. Merchants also alleged Visa and MasterCard attempted to monopolize the debit card business. The settlement resulted in debit cards being clearly marked so that they would not be confused with credit cards. This is the largest antitrust settlement in history.

Tyson Fresh Meats Inc. - (2004) $1+ billion

This class action lawsuit had to do with manipulation of cattle prices.

Toyota Recall / Defect-Related Class Actions - (2010) Unknown

Toyota is facing multiple class action lawsuits filed throughout the country for injuries and losses. The claims involve safety-related defects in gas pedal acceleration and floor mats. Also, Toyota owners are frustrated by the diminished value of their vehicles as a result of the injury reports and massive recall. Legal experts estimate Toyota could face multiple billions of dollars of liability and other costs.

Do you feel you have a claim as part of a class action? Are you wondering if you should file a class action or an individual lawsuit? An experienced Lead Counsel Class Action Lawyer, as provided on this site, can advise you on whether filing a class action or an individual lawsuit is best for your case, as well as advise you on what steps you need to take.

The information on this page is meant to provide a general overview of the law. The laws in your state and/or city may deviate significantly from those described here. If you have specific questions related to your situation you should speak with a local attorney.

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