Class action litigation is a special type of lawsuit in which multiple plaintiffs sue a single defendant or group of defendants. All of the plaintiffs must be similarly situated, which means they must all believe they suffered a similar wrongdoing by the defendant. There are both pros and cons to class action litigation.
Often, when an individual suffers a minor wrong, he has no immediate legal redress. For example, if a person buys a music player and the battery dies within a few months after the warranty expires, that individual is not likely to sue the manufacturer, even if he feels he was wronged, because the cost to do so would be prohibitively high. Class action lawsuits provide those plaintiffs with an opportunity to sue.
The group of plaintiffs who bought that particular music player can get together and file one big lawsuit with each of them as plaintiffs. Usually, the first person or group of people who brought the problem to the attention of the attorney are the named plaintiffs, which means their names are put on the lawsuit. All of the other plaintiffs who were affected aren't specifically named, but they are contacted, usually through letters in the mail, to ask if they want to join the class action litigation.
The attorney who represents the class then has the class certified by a judge. This means the judge signs off on the group that the plaintiffs formed, after making sure that all of the plaintiffs really did suffer a similar problem. The defendant who is being accused then either makes a settlement offer to the plaintiffs or the case goes to trial.
If a settlement offer is made, the judge in the class action litigation must approve it. The settlement proceeds are then split among all of the plaintiffs, with the attorneys taking a percentage. If the settlement offer is not accepted, the case goes to trial and the jury decides what is appropriate.
Class action litigation occurs often in the case of product defects, such as the music player example. In fact, Apple Inc. was sued in class action litigation as a result of defective batteries on an early iPod model. Each plaintiff was awarded a coupon or free repair on the iPod as a result of that lawsuit.
Drug liability cases, in which a defective drug is released to the market, and car recalls are also common reasons for class actions. In general, any time a big group of people believe they were all wronged the same way, a class action may be appropriate. In addition to giving the plaintiffs redress where none would otherwise exist, this also frees up the court system since the court doesn't have to hear hundreds or thousands of cases on the same issue.
There is, however, some downside to class actions. First, every plaintiff may not recover as much as he would have had he actually brought the suit himself. Second, some believe the bulk of the settlement money goes toward paying large attorneys fees, while plaintiffs are left with a pittance.