A manufacturer or company’s bad behavior can hurt hundreds, sometimes thousands of people. When those people come together in a lawsuit, it may be as part of a mass tort or class action. The differences between these cases may seem like legalese, but they can significantly affect your rights.
Class actions and mass torts are both lawsuits that can be brought when many people suffer harm because of a similar situation. But the legal differences between a class action and a mass tort could hurt your rights if you don’t know how to respond when notices arrive.
Consider a fictional example of ABC Trucks, an auto manufacturer of motor vehicles. Because of a manufacturing defect, ABC Trucks’ vehicles have unexpected brake failure, resulting in serious auto accidents.
What is a Class Action?
A class action is a lawsuit where one or a small group of “representative plaintiffs” bring a lawsuit against defendants on behalf of everyone in the same situation (the class). The representative plaintiffs file their lawsuit and ask the court to “certify” the class action to cover everyone within the same category. Before the court will certify the class, the plaintiffs must show that:
- The problem affects so many people, adding them all individually is impractical
- They can represent the interests of the entire class of injured people, without creating a conflict of interest
- Their claims are representative of the kind of harm suffered by the class
- The case centers on one act or pattern of behavior by the defendant
John Smith and Jane Doe want to sue ABC Trucks as a class action for injuries caused by their vehicles’ brake failure. Their complaint requests that the court certify a class of “all persons in the United States injured as a result of brake failure” on the specific make and model of ABC Truck. ABC Trucks sold more than 100,000 of those trucks, all with the defect. Smith was seriously injured when his truck’s brakes failed, and Doe’s son was killed when an ABC Truck struck him.
The trial court judge will decide whether the four conditions for a class action are met. If they are, the judge will certify the class and anyone in the U.S. injured as a result of brake failure will be covered by a single lawsuit.
What is a Mass Tort?
Mass tort claims (sometimes called “Mass Action” lawsuits) are complex cases where large numbers of victims bring individual claims against the same defendants for harm done by the same conduct. While some mass tort cases can be filed as class actions, the category can also include cases where each plaintiff suffered different types of injuries, or are connected to defendant’s behavior differently. Some mass torts are class actions that failed certification.
Smith and Doe have recruited 250 other plaintiffs, each of whom suffered injuries because of ABC Trucks’ brake defect. These plaintiffs are all able to pool their resources to prove many portions of the product defect claim. However, because each plaintiff’s case is taken individually, they will each demonstrate the harm suffered, their connection to the defect, and the damages they are entitled to.
How Are Your Rights Affected by a Mass Tort or Class Action?
The risk related to mass torts is primarily a risk of missing out on coordinated litigation. If you have suffered an injury already litigated in a mass tort you will have to bear all the costs of going to court yourself, rather than sharing them with your co-plaintiffs.
Class actions carry bigger risks, because the settlement or jury verdict applies to everyone in the class. That is why class actions require representative plaintiffs to send notices out to prospective class members, telling them that they will be part of the class unless they choose to opt out. If your injuries were significantly more serious, it may be better for you to opt out and start from square one.
Understanding the differences between complex litigation strategies takes years of legal expertise and experience. But everyone should know enough about mass torts and class actions to avoid missing out or having their rights compromised because they ignored a notice.
Dani K. Liblang is aat The Liblang Law Firm, PC, in Birmingham, Michigan. She helps the victims of manufacturing defects and other mass torts be compensated for their injuries. for a free consultation.