Class Action Lawsuits

class action

class action, in law, a device that permits one or more persons to sue or be sued as representative of a large group of people interested in the matter at issue. The court in whose jurisdiction a suit is brought typically has wide discretion in determining that a class will be so represented. Certain requirements must be met, e.g., the class must be so large or dispersed that actual joinder of all individuals would be impractical; there must be questions of law and fact common to all members, and these must outweigh any individual questions; and the named parties must adequately represent the interests of their class. Certain forms of notice to members of the class, e.g., by newspaper or broadcast publication or by mail, are also required. In most types of suit, all members of the class are bound by the decision, unless a member of the class opted out of the action at the beginning of the lawsuit. An absentee member may be able to contest the outcome on the basis that due process of law was not adhered to.

In the United States, federal and most state courts allow class action suits. Such suits have figured prominently in civil-rights litigation and in other cases brought to further social and economic reform. In recent decades they have been employed notably by groups of consumers and others seeking to affix liability for harm caused by various products, especially through manufacturers' negligence. Major litigation against the producers of the Dalkon shield (an intrauterine device; see birth control), of Agent Orange (a herbicide used as a defoliant in the Vietnam War), and of asbestos insulation has involved class action suits.

Since the 1980s such suits have been under attack, along with negligence litigation in general, with opponents, mainly conservatives and business interests, arguing that many lawsuits are frivolous and that awards are out of proportion to the offense in some juridictions. A study published in 2004 that reviewed several hundred state and federal class action lawsuits from 1993 to 2002 found that, adjusted for inflation, the average annual award in such suits varied but did not progressively increase, while the median award was relatively constant. At the same time, however, federal court data showed that the number of class action lawsuits doubled from 1997 to 2002. A 2011 Supreme Court decision on a proposed class action lawsuit concerning gender discrimination in employment tightened the requirements for determining what constitutes the common issue defining the class. Class action suits in the early 21st cent. have increasingly been limited by arbitration clauses in consumer contracts that require the purchaser of a product or service to waive the right to sue or participate in a class action.

See study by S. Yeazell (1987).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Class Action Lawsuits: Selected full-text books and articles

Mass Torts in a World of Settlement By Richard A. Nagareda University of Chicago Press, 2007
Class Action Dilemmas: Pursuing Public Goals for Private Gain By Deborah R. Hensler; Nicholas M. Pace; Bonita Dombey-Moore; Beth Giddens; Jennifer Gross; Erik K. Moller Rand, 2000
Our Class Action Federalism: Erie and the Rules Enabling Act after Shady Grove By Steinman, Adam N Notre Dame Law Review, Vol. 86, No. 3, July 2011
Class Action Reform: Will Perception Become Reality By Seiger, Mark B.; Healy, Christopher W Risk Management, Vol. 53, No. 2, February 2006
Majority of Class Action Publication Notices Fail to Satisfy Rule 23 Requirements By Wheatman, Shannon R.; LeClercq, Terri R The Review of Litigation, Vol. 30, No. 1, Fall 2010
Beyond "It Just Ain't Worth It": Alternative Strategies for Damage Class Action Reform By Hensler, Deborah R.; Rowe, Thomas D., Jr Law and Contemporary Problems, Vol. 64, No. 2-3, Spring-Summer 2001
Class Action Criminality By Casey, Lisa L Journal of Corporation Law, Vol. 34, No. 1, Fall 2008
Agent Orange on Trial: Mass Toxic Disasters in the Courts By Peter H. Schuck Belknap-Harvard University Press, 1987 (Enlarged edition)
Using Arbitration to Eliminate Consumer Class Actions: Efficient Business Practice or Unconscionable Abuse? By Sternlight, Jean R.; Jensen, Elizabeth J Law and Contemporary Problems, Vol. 67, No. 1-2, Spring 2004
Constructing Class Action Reality By Bassett, Debra Lyn Brigham Young University Law Review, Vol. 2006, No. 6, November 1, 2006
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