What Is a Class Action Lawsuit?

Everyone has heard of class actions (also sometimes called class-action lawsuits), whether they realize it or not. A few famous cases have been made into movies:

  • Erin Brockovich (played by Julia Roberts in the movie of the same name) was the force behind a class action that ended with a $333 million settlement for residents of Hinkley, California, whose groundwater was contaminated by Pacific Gas & Electric.
  • Lois Jenson (played by Charlize Theron in the movie North Country) led a class action that recovered $3.5 million for employees who were victims of sexual harassment at the Eveleth iron mine in northern Minnesota. (It was the first sexual harassment class action in the U.S.)
  • A Class Action (starring John Travolta and Robert Duvall) tells the story of a class action that resulted in an $8 million settlement for families who suffered from contamination of their drinking supply caused by a food packaging plant.

Other well-known class actions actually changed history. They include Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court case legalizing abortion, and Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision that declared segregated schools to be unconstitutional.

These cases were all class actions. But exactly what is a class action lawsuit?

What Is a Class Action?

A class action is a case brought in federal or state court by one person or a small number of people as representatives of a larger group. The larger group is called the “class.” The representatives are named as the plaintiffs in the case, but they represent everyone in the class. The lawsuit seeks compensation (damages) for members of the class for a wrong that they all suffered.

Class actions are used to combine claims, which are often individually too small in amount to justify a separate action, into an aggregate amount. Combining the claims into a large amount can justify the expense of litigation and improve the chances of success, especially when a big corporation is being sued.

The famous cases noted above are examples of the types of claims that can be brought as a class action. In addition, consumer claims, such as those for defective products and violations of consumer protection laws, are often asserted in class actions. Mass accidents or disasters can also result in a class-action lawsuit.

What Are the Requirements for Bringing a Class Action Lawsuit in Ohio?

Class actions can be filed in federal and state courts. Some types of actions are required to be filed in federal court. Regardless of whether the case is filed in state or federal court, the requirements will be similar.

The first step in a class action is called “class certification,” which is a determination made by the trial court where the case is filed. In Ohio, there are seven requirements that must be met for class certification. Five are set by court rules. Two additional requirements have been imposed in court decisions.

To establish class certification in Ohio, the named individuals bringing the lawsuit (“representatives”) must prove that:

  • An identifiable class actually exists.
  • The named representatives are all members of that class.
  • The class is so numerous that joining all of the class members is impracticable.
  • There are “questions of law or fact common to the class.”
  • The claims or defenses of the representatives bringing the suit are typical of the claims of the class.
  • The representatives will “fairly and adequately protect the interests of the whole class.”
  • Common questions predominate over questions affecting individual class members, and a class action is superior to other methods that might be used to resolve the claims.

These sound like a lot of detailed requirements, but our class-action attorneys at Robenalt Law are well-versed in handling class actions and experienced in guiding their clients through the class certification process.

The standards must all be met, but courts generally favor class certification. The initial review does not go into the actual legal or factual questions in the case. They focus on the requirements outlined above.

Courts have broad discretion in class certification proceedings. Ohio courts have shown a willingness to allow class actions to proceed when the prerequisites are met. That philosophy is consistent with the goals of class action litigation and its ability to accomplish fair and effective resolution of numerous claims in one lawsuit.

After a court certifies a class, the case proceeds to trial. The attorney for the class will present evidence to prove the claims and damages of the class. The opposing party’s attorney will try to disprove the claims.

The possible results in class actions are the same as in other lawsuits. A trial court’s decision may involve a monetary award, which is the relief sought in most class actions. A court order may also order changes in conduct or practices by the company or person who was sued.

If You Are a Class Member in a Class-Action Lawsuit

If an action is filed on behalf of a class and the description of the class includes you, generally you will automatically be included in the lawsuit. Sometimes though, class members will be informed about what actions, if any, they need to take in order to participate and “opt in” to be part of the lawsuit.

If you are part of the described class in an action, you can “opt out,” so you can bring your own action. If you decide stay in as part of the class, you will be bound by the outcome. Whether you opt out or continue as part of the class is a decision to make based on all the circumstances and facts of your own situation. Consulting with an attorney experienced in handling class actions may be in your best interest.

Settlements in Class-Action Lawsuits

Settlement discussions are common in class actions. Negotiations can occur at any time in the process.

If a settlement involves monetary damages, class members will be given the opportunity to “opt in” or “opt out” of the settlement. If you opt out of the settlement, you preserve the right to pursue a separate action. If you opt in, you will be bound by all the terms of the settlement, and you agree to accept the amount of damages it includes.

How Is the Attorney for the Class Compensated?

Most often, attorneys handle class action cases on a “contingent fee” basis. That means they receive a percentage of the money that is received by the class, and they are paid from the funds paid to the class. If there is no recovery, the attorneys are receive nothing.

When Should You Consult an Attorney?

There are several potential class-action situations in which a consultation with an attorney is advisable:

  • If you have been injured by a defective product or by a company’s conduct, and you think you might be part of a large group that suffered the same injuries.
  • If you receive notification that you are part of a class action, but you think it may be more beneficial if you “opt out” and bring your own case.
  • If you receive notification of settlement with a class that you belong to, and you are not sure whether you should “opt out” of the settlement.

In the first instance, you should talk with an attorney about your injuries regardless of whether a class action might be the appropriate course to pursue. Your attorney will help you determine whether it is more beneficial to file your own lawsuit or to pursue a class-action lawsuit on behalf of a group.

Our attorneys at Robenalt Law are experienced in personal injury actions as well as in consumer claims, including class action lawsuits. Most cases are handled on a contingent fee basis under our No Fee Unless You Win policy. Your initial consultation is always free.

Robenalt Law is a Cleveland law firm representing clients throughout Ohio and in Florida. Call us at (216) 223-7535, complete our online form , or email trobenalt@robenaltlaw.com to schedule your free consultation.

Categories: Class Actions