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Lawsuits - Individual v. Class Action

Lawsuits - Individual v. Class Action

While the underlying facts in any lawsuit varies, one thing that remains the same is the reason for bringing a lawsuit - harm and injury. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a lawsuit as “a suit in law: a case before a court.” The Legal Information Institute website expands the definition, defining a lawsuit as “a civil legal action by one person or entity (the “plaintiff’) against another person or entity (the “defendant”), to be decided in a court.” 

Individual Lawsuits

In most lawsuits, one party (the plaintiff) brings a claim against one or more defendants. The plaintiff alleges some type wrongdoing by another party (defendant(s)) and is attempting to right the wrong and recover damages. There can be more than one defendant in a lawsuit. In the case of multiple defendants in North Carolina, joint and several liability will apply. Therefore every defendant will be liable for damages regardless of their actual fault. Examples of lawsuits where there is typically only one plaintiff include:

  • Personal injury lawsuits. Personal injury lawsuits occur when the plaintiff is injured by the negligence of the defendant. For example, a plaintiff who is injured in a car accident by a defendant who runs a red light might bring a personal injury lawsuit against that defendant for damages. A customer who slips and falls while on the premises of a business might bring a lawsuit against the business. 
  • Workers’ compensation lawsuits. If a worker, or plaintiff, is injured on the job then the plaintiff might bring a workers’ compensation claim against the employer. 
  • Medical malpractice lawsuit. A patient, or plaintiff, who is injured due to the negligence of a doctor might bring a medical malpractice claim against the doctor and/or the hospital where the injury occurred. The family of a patient killed due to the negligence of a doctor might have a wrongful death claim. 
  • Wrongful termination lawsuit. An employee who was terminated in violation of the law might have a claim against his/her employer for wrongful termination. 

Class Action Lawsuits 

Class action lawsuits are an avenue for recourse when multiple plaintiffs have been injured by the same party and it is not practical to file individual lawsuits on behalf of a large group of plaintiffs. The plaintiffs can join together to form a “class” and sue on behalf of that class, rather than individually. Compared to traditional lawsuits, and in contrast to what advertisements for class action lawsuits would have us believe, class action lawsuits happen infrequently.   

A class action lawsuit allows multiple parties to bring one claim at one time against the same wrongdoer(s). One, or a few, people from the class will be chosen as the named plaintiff(s) and will serve as a representative, or the face, of the class. The other members of the class will have the option of participating in the lawsuit or not. If they chose not to participate in the lawsuit, then they will “opt out” of the class action and not receive any damages awarded as a result of the lawsuit or any settlement. Those who opt out will have the option of bringing an individual lawsuit against the defendant(s). Those who do not opt out will not be active participants in the suit, but they will be entitled to receive a share or portion of any damages awarded at trial or resulting from settlement. 

Class action claims arise most frequently in product liability cases where a number of individuals have been harmed by a product. One of the largest class actions in history was the Big Tobacco class action and settlement in which the 4 biggest U.S. cigarette makers agreed to pay more than $206 billion over 25 years to class members in 46 states to cover medical costs associated with smoking-related illnesses. As part of that settlement, the tobacco companies also agreed to pay $1.5 billion for an anti-smoking campaign. Another well known class action lawsuit was brought by 20 women alleging that Johnson & Johnson’s talcum powder led to their ovarian cancer. They were awarded $2 billion in damages. 

Filing a Class Action Lawsuit

There are stringent requirements that must be met in order to proceed with a class action lawsuit. First, and perhaps most importantly, the class must be “certified.” While certification can vary from state to state, it typically involves showing that: 

  1. the representative suffered from the same harm or injuries as those in the class;
  2. similar facts or legal theories exist among the plaintiffs and their injuries;
  3. it can be determined who is part of the class and who is not;
  4. there are enough individuals involved to make separate lawsuits unreasonable; and 
  5. a class action is the most efficient way to resolve the claims. 

It is up to a judge to determine if a class should be certified. If the judge decides not to certify a class, then the case will be dismissed. Individuals can then choose whether or not to proceed with an individual lawsuit.

Benefits of a Class Action Lawsuit

Lawsuits are both time consuming and expensive. Many people cannot afford the time and expense involved in bringing a claim. For example, a person injured in a car accident who has out of pocket expenses and missed time from work may not be able to afford to bring a lawsuit for both monetary and time reasons. In addition, attorneys do not take all cases to court for a variety of reasons including both the costs and risks involved in litigation. For example, if the damages are minimal, a law firm may choose not to bring suit because the cost of suit could exceed the amount of damages recoverable.  

In a class action, the costs and risks of the lawsuit are streamlined. Rather than numerous plaintiffs and their attorneys suing the same defendant(s), the defendant is being sued on behalf of numerous similar plaintiffs with only one attorney. Even where damages are low, the likelihood of numerous individuals recovering could outweigh the costs of the litigation. 

Discuss Your Case with Our Charlotte Attorneys

The Charlotte NC based lawyers at Rosensteel Fleishman, PLLC are experienced attorneys who can advise you as to whether or not your case should be filed as a class action. Please contact our office at 704-714-1450. There is no fee for an initial consultation. 

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