The recent withdrawals of the prescription medications Vioxx and Bextra from the marketplace due to safety concerns has class-action lawsuits in the news again. What is a class-action lawsuit? If you have been wronged, can a class-action lawsuit help you?
A class-action lawsuit is one in which a single law firm or attorney represents a group of individuals who have been wronged in some common way. The wrong may have come in the form of physical harm from a commercial product or perhaps in the form of financial harm done by a company misleading the public in some way. In the early 1990s, class-action lawsuits were filed on behalf of women allegedly harmed by silicone breast implants, and now attorneys are filing class-action suits on behalf of people allegedly harmed through the use of Vioxx and Bextra.
There are advantages and disadvantages to class-action suits. The primary advantage is that they allow a group of people, perhaps numbering in the thousands, an opportunity to have their case heard in court without each of them having to file a separate lawsuit. If thousands, or even tens of thousands, of people filed individual lawsuits against the same company for the same reason, the courts, both at the Federal and state levels, could become hopelessly clogged with nearly identical cases. Another advantage is that it allows people who may not have individually suffered enough harm to justify a lawsuit by themselves to seek compensation as a group, or class where the harm committed is cumulatively large.
The courts decide whether or not a case is to be heard as a class-action suit, as the court must decide if the merits of the case justify handling the suit in that way, and whether or not the attorney or law firm in question can adequately represent the victims involved. Should the case proceed as a class-action suit, only one or two representatives of the class need appear in court. They will represent the class; it is not necessary for all members of the class to be present at trial.
Once the case is certified as a class-action lawsuit, all parties representing the class are notified by their attorney either via mail or public notice. They then have the opportunity to opt out, should they not wish to be represented in the case by the attorneys in question. Unless the notified individuals opt out, they are included and will share in the award, should the lawsuit proceed to a successful conclusion. Individuals who choose to opt out may then elect to hire their own representation and perhaps file a lawsuit on their own.
Class action lawsuits typically take several years to reach their conclusion, particularly if the suit is followed by appeals by the losing party. It is not uncommon, however, for class action lawsuits to be settled out of court.
As always, should you find yourself in a situation where a lawsuit might be warranted, be sure to consult with a qualified attorney.