Generally, the American legal system allows a plaintiff (or a few plaintiffs) to seek relief against a defendant, or a small group of defendants. Class actions, however, allow large groups of similarly situated plaintiffs who do not necessarily know each other and sometimes number in the thousands, to file a lawsuit against a defendant.
Class actions are representative lawsuits which means that a few representatives of the class members will effectively act as the plaintiffs in the case. The rest of the class members may have no direct say in how the case is litigated or in whether to accept a settlement. In this way, class actions differ significantly from other types of litigation in the United States.
Why Class Actions are Permitted in the United States
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23 (b) explains why class actions are permitted in the United States. That rule allow the court to certify a class action lawsuit when:
· Individual lawsuits “would establish incompatible standards of conduct” for the defendant;
· The outcome of individual lawsuits would effectively decide the outcomes of lawsuits for people in similar situations to the individual plaintiff and “would substantially impair or impede their ability to protect their interests”;
· The defendants actions (or inactions) apply generally to a class of plaintiffs so that relief would be appropriate for all class members; or
· When a class action lawsuit is superior to other types of lawsuits as a means of deciding a controversy fairly and efficiently. When deciding whether a class action lawsuit is a superior means of litigation, the court should consider the class members and defendants interests in personally controlling the litigation, whether litigation is currently pending on the issues (and at what stage that litigation is pending), whether concentrating the litigation in one jurisdiction is desirable, and the difficulty in managing the class action.
Thus, the class action lawsuits are allowed when they promote:
· Equitable outcomes for plaintiffs and fairness for defendants. For example, the court will consider the risk of inconsistent rulings and that individual plaintiffs might not bear the cost of litigation but for a class action lawsuit; and
· Efficiency for all parties to the litigation and to the court. If there are enough class members to qualify who have common questions of law then it is a more efficient use of the parties’ money and of the court’s time to create a class action case.
In order to make sure that class action lawsuits are used to satisfy these doctrinal reasons for class action lawsuits, both federal and state rules of civil procedure and related laws, such as the Class Action Fairness Act of 2005, provide detailed descriptions about when a class action lawsuit may be brought.
If you are deciding whether to become part of a class action lawsuit then it is important to consider the reasons for class action lawsuits described above and whether they apply to your individual case. The doctrinal reasons for class action lawsuits can provide clarity to your decision.
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.