Should You Join a Class Action in California?
San Francisco attorney Mark E. Burton explains the ins and outs of signing on for a large lawsuit
on September 30, 2021
Updated on April 21, 2022
You see an ad on TV, or get a letter in your mailbox, asking if you’d like to join a class action lawsuit. Should you do it?
What’s a class action?
First, here’s what class action means. It’s a situation in which multiple people are included in one lawsuit. “The class all share a common complaint against the defendant and have similar damages,” says Mark E. Burton, who practices class action/mass torts law at Audet & Partners in San Francisco. Plaintiff’s attorneys are appointed as “class representatives” to represent the interests of the class members. At the end, adds Burton, “the court has ultimate control over issues such as settlement.”
If you received a letter, you might be wondering how the attorneys got your name. Usually, the plaintiff’s team gets a court order to request that the defendant provide the names of people who may have been injured by its alleged actions.
Some well-known class actions
Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement ($206 billion)
- States filed suits against the major tobacco companies to recover smoking-related health care costs and reduce exposure to minors
- Settled in 1998
- Each state receives roughly $3.98 billion a year until 2025
Enron ($7.2 billion)
- Company shareholders and investors filed $40 billion suit after the stock price fell from $90 a share in 2000 to less than $1 by 2001, arguing fraud and concealment of information
- Settled in 2008
- An estimated 1.5 million people received $4,800 each
Why a class action
A class action lawsuit has a distinct advantage for situations in which many parties may have been injured, Burton explains. “When a defendant’s actions have affected numerous people, the courts could never provide a trial for each of them, and typically the amount involved for any one person is not high enough to justify bringing a case,” he says. “Bringing a class action can more efficiently handle numerous claims and make it worthwhile to rectify wrongs committed against many, but in a small amount.”
Also, the expense of pursuing such a case—which can cost millions of dollars—is spread among many lawyers in a class action, as opposed to in an individual claim.
Disadvantages to a class action
There is also a downside. “Class actions can take longer than individual cases and have more procedural hurdles in order to make a recovery,” Burton says. “If an individual’s claim is worth enough money and they can find a competent attorney to represent them, it may be best to proceed on your own.”
He adds, “The common misconception is that defendants are willing to settle class actions with little merit because they fear these cases so much. This couldn’t be further from the truth: These cases are hard-fought, and the courts have made it more and more difficult to successfully bring a class action to resolution.”
Though the process can be lengthy and the payoff—while possibly very large overall—small once divided among all the individual parties, Burton sees another important potential outcome to successful class actions. “Changing bad corporate behavior,” he says, “is usually a big reason for bringing these cases. If not held accountable, the defendant will continue unfair and illegal practices to their advantage.”
If you feel that you might be a member of a class action, contact an attorney who is experienced in class action/mass torts laws. For more information on this area of law, see our overview of class action and mass torts.