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Mass tort suits and class actions are similar in many respects. They both involve numerous plaintiffs with similar grievances or the same grievance, and their legal actions are directed at the same defendant or defendants. However, they differ in many respects, most notably in how the law treats them.
If you or a loved one is seeking to take legal action along with multiple plaintiffs, a personal injury lawyer can help you start on the right foot and choose the most appropriate context for your claim.
What Is a Mass Tort?
A mass tort is a legal action involving multiple plaintiffs seeking compensation from one or more of the same defendants. In a mass tort, the plaintiffs have all suffered the same or a significantly similar grievance. Additionally, the plaintiffs have all suffered at the hands of the same wrongdoer or wrongdoers.
But although mass torts involve more than one plaintiff, it is important to note that in mass torts, each plaintiff is treated as an individual who has their own claim or cause of action. Therefore, mass tort lawsuits are similar to numerous individual lawsuits in that a judge will try each case individually.
Compare this to a class action suit, in which there are typically many more plaintiffs than in mass torts. In most cases, with too many separate plaintiffs with individual lawsuits, it would be judicially inefficient to proceed with a mass tort action instead of a class action suit.
How Do Mass Torts Lawsuits Work?
Mass tort lawsuits usually commence as separate lawsuits from plaintiffs seeking compensation from the same defendant for the same harmful acts. For the sake of judicial efficiency, a judge may decide to consolidate each of these separate lawsuits into one single mass tort claim.
However, combining each lawsuit into one mass tort claim does not alter how the judge treats each plaintiff. Each plaintiff in a mass tort lawsuit is considered individually and has the right to be represented by their own legal counsel. Each plaintiff also has the right to make decisions about their case, separately from other participants in the suit.
For example, it is quite common for a mass tort case to settle before a trial is necessary. However, if one plaintiff in the mass tort lawsuit does not like the settlement terms, they are free to reject it, regardless of what the others decide. This results in more flexibility for the plaintiffs, but it also means a longer process for the courts.
What Is a Class Action Lawsuit?
A class action lawsuit refers to a lawsuit with multiple plaintiffs who are represented by a smaller number of representatives. Unlike mass torts, the court treats class action lawsuits as single cases, meaning any ruling the court makes will apply to all plaintiffs (the entire class).
Generally speaking, class action suits are often filed against large corporations, pharmaceutical companies, or organizations whose actions have affected a large number of individuals throughout more than one geographical area.
How Do Class Action Lawsuits Work?
Class action lawsuits proceed when multiple plaintiffs join together in one lawsuit. The legal procedure for class actions requires that every member of a prospective class be notified as the case moves forward but does not mandate that each prospective member join the suit before it can proceed.
When prospective claimant receives a notification of a class action lawsuit, they have the option of joining in or opting out and pursuing an individual lawsuit if they choose.
According to the federal courts (where class actions are quite common), the following guidelines must be met for a class action lawsuit to proceed:
- There must be a large number of plaintiffs, making individual lawsuits impractical;
- The plaintiffs cases share the same legal issues;
- The class representatives share the same claims and defenses;
- The class representatives can ensure the protection of each class member's interests.
Any payout or settlement awarded in the case will be divided equally among the members of the class.
What Events Can Injure Large Groups?
Certain events are more likely to cause harm to large groups than others. When they occur, it typically makes more sense to the large group than all plaintiffs together in a mass tort or class action lawsuit.
Some common situations of a large group being harmed include:
- Product liability, like in the case of faulty products that harm numerous consumers;
- Defective devices (such as improperly made medical devices) that have been widely distributed;
- Defective drugs with a large consumer base;
- Catastrophes, such as building and bridge collapses.
In most cases, a company or organization's negligence is behind these tragedies that affect large numbers of people.
Mass Tort vs. Class Action — Similarities
Although they're different types of legal actions, mass torts, and class actions share a few characteristics, including:
- Numerous plaintiffs who have suffered the same or similar harms;
- One or more defendants who are responsible for the harms suffered by the plaintiffs;
- Multiple legal actions from many different victims consolidated into one lawsuit.
These similarities can cause confusion, but some differences can help you distinguish between the two.
Difference Between Mass Tort and Class Action Lawsuits
There are a few differences between mass torts and class action lawsuits:
- Requirements: Mass torts have plaintiffs who file individual actions against a common defendant, whereas class action suits involve plaintiffs uniting under one class representative to bring one action against a defendant.
- Number of Plaintiffs: Mass tort lawsuits typically have fewer plaintiffs than class action lawsuits. When there are too many plaintiffs, mass tort lawsuits are usually not possible, so a class action is initiated to manage the greater number of plaintiffs.
- Procedural Differences: Mass tort lawsuits are composed of individual actions in which each plaintiff must present their case and damages. However, a class action lawsuit is a legal action requiring only one case to be presented and proven.
- Individual vs. Group Judgment: Judgments passed in a class action apply equally to all members of the class. However, in mass tort litigation, judgments apply separately.
Regarding the primary difference between individual vs. group judgment, plaintiffs in a mass tort lawsuit receive differing awards for compensation based on their specific injuries. In contrast, plaintiffs in a class action will all receive the same compensation.
How to Determine Whether to File a Class Action or Mass Tort Lawsuit
For various reasons, attorneys may choose a class action lawsuit over mass tort litigation or vice versa. One of the simplest factors is the number of plaintiffs — if there are too many plaintiffs, it is often more practical to choose a class action suit.
Other times, it's simply not possible to qualify for a class action lawsuit. For example, the plaintiffs cases must be substantially similar. If they are not, the court will likely refuse to certify the suit due to the plaintiffs divergent interests.
If the cases are not similar enough for a class action, then filing a mass tort claim would be more appropriate, where each plaintiff's grievances are considered separately. This is true even if there is a large number of plaintiffs— unless the interests of the plaintiffs are substantially similar, they cannot be adequately represented in a class action lawsuit.
In most cases, you'll need to consult an experienced attorney to determine which route is better for your case.
Contact a Lawyer at Jacob Fuchsberg Law Firm for Either a Class Action Lawsuit or Mass Tort Claims
Class action suits and mass tort claims help get justice for multiple plaintiffs. However, they are different legal actions with markedly different consequences.
If you or a loved one has been injured by a party who has also injured many others, the Jacob Fuchsberg Law Firm can help you determine the most optimal way to proceed. We have represented numerous clients in class action suits and mass tort claims and can help you get the justice you deserve.