There may be safety in numbers – but there is also power in numbers. Sometimes a class of plaintiffs can achieve something in a class action lawsuit that individual plaintiffs would not be able to achieve because the cost of litigation would be prohibitive given the potential damage awards. For this reason, class action lawsuits often involve the types of issues discussed below.
Environmental issues, such as preventing pollution and maintaining clean water, typically do not solely effect individuals but rather effect large classes of potential plaintiffs. For example, groups of property owners have been successful in bringing class action lawsuits that allege that contamination of their properties decreased their property values. These kinds of cases lead the defendants, and other businesses, to change the ways in which they dispose of waste and to make greater efforts to avoid polluting the environment so that they can avoid future litigation.
Issues concerning predatory lending and breaches of securities law are often the subject of class actions. Often the victims of predatory lending or financial securities fraud or misconduct bring a lawsuit and require that practices be changed to protect the interests of future customers and investors.
When a single employee brings a lawsuit against his or her employer, the case often ends in a confidential settlement that may provide relief to the employee but often does not result in systemic change beyond the individual employer. In comparison, class action lawsuits can lead not only the defendant but also similarly situated businesses to change their practices. Common types of employment class action lawsuits include disputes over compliance with wage and hour laws, sexual harassment, discriminatory hiring or pay, hostile work places and other matters that are against state or federal law.
Class action lawsuits are particularly effective at deciding important civil rights issues. Brown v. Board of Education was a class action lawsuit decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954 that ended racial segregation in public schools, for example. More recent class action civil rights cases have been brought about challenging the fair conduct of certain police departments, the alleged sex discrimination policies of major corporations, and the alleged unfair treatment of people with disabilities.
Product defects have been, and continue to be, a significant amount of class action litigation. In 2010, a significant class action lawsuit was filed against Toyota for their allegedly defective vehicles that unintentionally accelerated, for example. If a successful settlement or verdict is reached, the class members of a product liability class action are entitled to damages based on their injuries and the defendant is required to make changes to prevent putting customers at risk in the future.
Dangerous defective drugs and pharmaceutical devices do not create injuries in just one person. Often many people are injured by the drugs or devices. In the past, class members have brought successful class action lawsuits regarding defective drugs, defective contraceptives and defective surgical materials. Defective drug class actions encourage pharmaceutical companies to develop better testing procedures and safer products in the future.
The cases described above are only a sampling of the many types of class action cases commonly brought in the United States. However, they provide an important sampling because of the important issues that they address and because of the great number of people that they effect.
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.