Class action lawsuits are complicated legal cases and follow a slightly different path in court than other lawsuits. A class action lawsuit involves multiple plaintiffs with the same or substantially similar injuries caused by the same defendant or defendants.
These plaintiffs are joined together in a single lawsuit and are grouped into “classes” based on their injuries. The court will treat the class as a single plaintiff and the outcome of the case will apply to every plaintiff who joined the class.
At the beginning of a lawsuit, an attorney may not know whether the lawsuit is a class action or not. In these cases, the attorney may file a putative class action.
If an attorney is filing a class action lawsuit, they may not know all of the plaintiffs or potential plaintiffs before they file the initial complaint with the court. A good example of this is a plaintiff who has been injured by a product that was sold to more than one person. There may be other people who also purchased the same product and experienced the same injury who have not filed a lawsuit.
In a case like this, the attorney will file a putative class action. Putative means believed or claimed to be, so a putative class action is filed on behalf of all of the unknown plaintiffs by the initial plaintiff.
The initial plaintiff will usually ask to be the class representative and represent the interests of all plaintiffs, known and unknown at the time the lawsuit is filed. At this stage of the lawsuit, it is not considered a class action yet.
After the initial putative class action complaint, or lawsuit, is filed with the court, the plaintiffs and defendants will then proceed to the discovery phase of litigation. During discovery, both the plaintiffs and defendants will ask one another questions, share documents, schedule and attend depositions, and speak with experts.
The goal of discovery is to identify and confirm the facts and evidence involved in the case to help win or settle the lawsuit. Discovery also allows the attorney or attorneys to gather enough information to support the certification of the class action lawsuit and identify the class of plaintiffs.
When either a plaintiff or defendant believes they have enough evidence to convert the putative class action to an actual class action lawsuit, they will ask the court to certify the class and have the lawsuit become a class action lawsuit represented by the initial plaintiff on behalf of the “class” of plaintiffs. To decide whether or not a class action should be certified, the judge will base their decision on:
- The number of plaintiffs that would be in the class;
- Whether the group of plaintiffs share the same injury or injuries;
- Whether the individual plaintiffs have the same or substantially similar facts;
- Whether the class representative would adequately represent the interest of all potential plaintiffs; and
- Whether the defendant would be able to compensate the potential plaintiffs if the plaintiffs won their case.
If, after considering all of these factors, the judge believes there is a good reason for the lawsuit to be a class action, they will certify the class and the case will become a class action lawsuit.
When the lawsuit officially becomes a class action, the class representative, who is often the original plaintiff in the putative class action, will represent the legal interests of any and all other plaintiffs who join the class.
Using the information and evidence from the discovery phase, the attorneys will make every effort to contact any and all potential plaintiffs about the class action lawsuit. This is usually done through the mail, TV and radio advertisements, or the Internet.
When they contact the plaintiffs, the plaintiffs will be given information about the lawsuit and will be invited to join the class of plaintiffs already involved in the lawsuit. If a person joins the class, the court will treat the class as a single plaintiff and the outcome of the case will apply to every plaintiff in the class, win or lose.
Class action lawsuits are heavily regulated by law and are very complicated. If you believe you have a putative class action, your first step would be to find a local personal injury attorney. An attorney can tell you whether you have a putative class action or if there is already a class action lawsuit pending that you can join.
If you received a notice in the mail, or read or heard about a class action you believe you belong to, then you should contact a local personal injury attorney. The attorney can help you determine the best course of action for your situation.