What Does This Class Action Letter Mean?

St. Louis attorneys have the answer

This summer, customers who’d purchased certain e-books from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Apple may have been surprised by emails notifying them of credits in their accounts, the result of a class action lawsuit in which the court ordered Apple to pay $400 million for price fixing. That type of out-of-nowhere jackpot is rare in class actions, according to local class action attorneys. 
Most often, a postcard or letter arrives in the mail from a law firm you know nothing about, regarding a product you’ve long forgotten. Why did you get it? What does it mean? And what do you do with it? 
“Once you get one of those postcards, you may already be in the class,” says Gretchen Garrison, an attorney at Gray, Ritter & Graham involved in multimillion-dollar class actions against Bayer, AT&T and other large corporations. “So there’s not a question of joining. It would only be a question of opting out or objecting.”
The class action actually began much earlier. Typically a handful of plaintiffs’ lawyers file suit against a company, usually because of injury or product defect, and then ask the court to include others who may have been similarly affected. If the class is certified, it falls on the company to provide notice to potential class members. 
“The defendant is not always obliged to provide names, and there are a variety of ways to provide notice to potential class members," Garrison says. "Due process requires the best practical notice, so it may be a publication, website or email; I’ve even seen them in magazines.” 
Garrison and other St. Louis class action lawyers urge consumers not to throw the notice away. “The only way you’re going to know what you’re entitled to, and whether you want it, is to read that notice,” says John E. Campbell of Campbell Law. “That notice is your gateway to understanding what’s happening.”
They recommend going to the listed website and reviewing the legal documents. Sometimes you need to fill out a form to be part of the class, or submit proof of membership in the class, but most often you don’t have to do anything at all.
Of course, you can opt out. Why would you? Say you own a car that could potentially accelerate without warning. “If you’re a consumer who actually had that problem, and you suffered some personal or physical injury, by all means you would not want to join that class action because you want to preserve all your rights for your own individual action,” says Elizabeth Carver, a partner at Bryan Cave.
Sometimes, when there are too many potential class members or they’re hard to identify, a notice is posted in a major magazine, such as Parade. And occasionally, like with the Apple settlement, a suit brought by a state’s attorney general (rather than individual lawyers) prompts an “instant” refund. 
Generally, don’t expect to retire on any class action money. The rewards are usually small—a coupon or a product replacement—although sometimes they pay off in a big way. Campbell, for instance, once sued a company on behalf of roughly 100 retirees on the grounds of mismanaged pension funds. “We sent checks out for $70,000 and $80,000 to [each] person and they never went to court. They never paid a lawyer,” says Campbell, though he did recover fees. “That’s because we were able to resolve the legal issue one time instead of hundreds of times.” 
More important, class actions also help keep companies honest. “In the best case scenarios,” Campbell says, “class actions return money to people and stop bad behavior.”

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