A Touch of Class Actions

Posted by Rob Jenner on February 28, 2012 in Legal Library

Last Friday night a bunch of friends of mine got together and watched Erin Brockovich. I was the only lawyer in the group so, naturally, the post-movie chatter was directed mostly at me. The movie portrayed trial lawyers in a positive light, so the group was mercifully friendly. It was not the first time I had heard some of the questions. I imagine they are probably questions shared by many people, so I thought I would post some of them here.

What is a class action?

A class action is a single lawsuit where one person brings a claim for many people who have suffered the same damage from a single product. A “class representative” brings the lawsuit not only for herself, but also for everybody in the group who may be affected.

Give me an example.

Let’s say you bought a Dell computer and everybody who bought the same model, Dell Computer — Model ABC, got a bad hard drive. A person may bring a lawsuit that is styled, “Jane Smith, Individually and on behalf of all others similarly situated who purchased a Dell Computer — Model ABC.” The damages the person is seeking would be a new replacement hard drive not only for herself, but also for everybody else who bought that same computer.

Why does Jane Smith bother? Why doesn’t she just file a lawsuit by herself for her own losses?

Ah, because lawsuits, regrettably, are very expensive. The cost of the lawsuit would certainly be more than the cost of buying a replacement hard drive. Expenses in such a suit include not only the court’s fee to file the lawsuit, but the costs of expert witnesses, document production, and trial costs. But thankfully, the class action mechanism allows Jane Smith to sue on behalf of everybody affected, so the cost of the suit can be shared among all members of the class.

Did the lawyers in Erin Brockovich bring a class action for the clients’ personal injuries related to exposure to carcinogens from the power plant?

Probably not. Class actions are not effective tools for personal injury cases because everybody’s damage is different. That is, an injury to one person is generally different in its nature and cause than an injury to another person. That is why Erin had to go around and get retainer agreements and consent forms signed by each one of her hundreds of clients. The firm represented each person individually, even though the lawsuits were consolidated before one judge.

What about when a drug company makes or markets a drug that hurts people? Are class actions used in these cases to recover for personal injuries?

No. A defectively designed drug, or a drug with insufficient warnings, can cause an epidemic of harm. But an injured person will need his or her own lawyer to bring an individual lawsuit because their injuries will be unique to them.

A friend of mine was hurt taking a bad drug? Who should he call?

Funny you should ask. See

Robert Jenner is a principal with Janet, Jenner & Suggs, LLC, and focuses his practice on dangerous prescription drugs, defective medical devices and tainted blood products. He also leads the firm’s Mass Torts Division.

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