Class action lawsuits are composed of groups of people with the same or similar injuries and/or damages, stemming from the same source. The cause of the injury may be a specific event or incident: contamination from a toxic substance, material or structure; faulty medical treatment or use of the same defective product, drug or device. Usually, the injured parties have sustained fairly minor injuries. Therefore, by combining the individual claims into one action, the claim becomes more practical for the plaintiffs and for the court system. It is more cost effective to litigate all the claims at one time, since the costs of litigation will be paid by the group, not by an individual plaintiff. Additionally, by combining the smaller claims together, they add up and may gain strength in proving the plaintiff’s case to the court.
In order for the court to recognize a class action lawsuit, the action must meet certain prerequisites. First, it must be practical to have a group action rather than individual claims (the group must be large), the class members must have similar factual scenarios, a representative member must file claims that would be predictable/standard for the other class members and the named plaintiff (class representative) must protect the interests of the class sufficiently.
If a group meets the court’s required factors, they may file an action as class members. When a class action lawsuit is initiated, a group of injured parties (the plaintiffs) file one action with the court and each plaintiff is considered a class member of the lawsuit. Generally, one class member will be chosen as the representative member — or named plaintiff — for the entire class. This person (or persons) will sue the defendant on behalf of the other class members and represent the group’s interests to the court. The individual or small group chosen as the representative member(s) must also meet certain statutory requirements (criteria for a named plaintiff) and will be chosen or approved by the court.
Once the court has approved class action status and appointed the class representative, other persons affected by the litigation should be notified. Generally, the named plaintiff will be ordered to notify any persons who may be affected or who would qualify as class members. If the class if very large, individual notification may be impossible. In such a case, the notification must be reasonable. Notification by letter, flyer, magazine, newspaper, television or the radio may be sufficient, depending on the circumstances. Not every single person must be notified, but if the notification process was approved as reasonable and appropriate by the court, it will suffice. If a person is notified of a class action lawsuit, he or she may choose to opt in or opt out of the lawsuit. If the class action litigation is already in process, potential members may no longer be able to opt out of the lawsuit and will be legally bound by the case’s result.
Conversely, it is important to note that if an injured party has sustained serious or severe injuries and is able to file an individual claim — as opposed to joining a class action lawsuit — doing so may be in that individual’s best interests. It depends on the extent of the damages and the circumstances involved. For this reason, if you or your loved one has been seriously injured, it is important to speak to an attorney knowledgeable in personal injury law to determine whether a class action lawsuit is the best option for your situation.
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