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Can My Lawsuit Be a Class Action?

What you need in order to certify a class in Ohio

Have you ever received a letter in the mail informing you that you are entitled to receive money under a class action settlement? Even if you haven’t, you have probably heard the term “class action lawsuit” used before in the media without actually understanding what it means or how it works.

A class action is basically a procedural device used by courts to handle claims involving a large group of plaintiffs. This group is known as the “class,” and depending on the type of claim, it may include anywhere from a few dozen individuals to millions of people. “There’s no magical number,” says Gregory M. Utter, a class action attorney in Cincinnati, “but people typically think of 25 as being the minimum number.”

Where it is impractical for each individual class member to separately pursue their claim against the same defendant (or group of defendants), the judge may instead “certify” the matter as a class action. A smaller group of plaintiffs are then appointed as “representatives” of members of the class.

The representatives are often, but not always, the people who filed the initial lawsuit. “The normal way is: A plaintiff who believes they’ve been wronged contacts a law firm and seeks legal advice from a class action lawyer, who identifies the claims as being on behalf of not just that individual but a larger group of people,” says Utter. “Then the lawyer will ask that person if they are interested in being a representative of the class.”

In many class action cases these initial plaintiffs do not actually know the identity of all potential class members. There may even be different groups of plaintiffs competing to be named as class representative. Ultimately, it is up to the judge overseeing the case to decide who should serve as the lead plaintiff or plaintiffs.

The Importance of Rule 23

Of course, first the judge must decide whether the claims presented justify certifying the class action suit in the first place. Both the U.S. Supreme Court and the Supreme Court of Ohio have adopted rules governing class actions in federal and state courts, respectively. The state and federal rules are substantially the same. Indeed, they are both numbered as “Rule 23.”

Under Ohio’s Rule 23, a representative may bring a class action only if the following four conditions are met:

  1. The class contains so many members that it would make “joinder” of their respective claims “impracticable,” i.e. it would be logistically difficult–if not impossible–for each individual plaintiff to personally appear before the court.
  2. All class members present common “questions of law or fact”;
  3. The specific claims raised by the proposed representative class members are “typical of the claims or defenses of the class”; and
  4. The proposed representatives can “fairly and adequately protect the interests” of all class members.

Most class actions involve large companies accused of a specific kind of misconduct that broadly affects it customers or employees. For example, class actions are commonly used to pursue claims for employment discrimination and damages arising from financial institutions that charge illegal fees. All of the parties suffered the same (or similar) legal injury, and it would make no sense to separately adjudicate each claim.

One final thing to note: A class action is different from multi-district litigation (MDL), which is another kind of mass tort management tool commonly used by the court system. An MDL is when multiple individual claims are assigned to the same judge, who may consolidate certain pretrial procedures, but otherwise adjudicates each case separately. Multidistrict litigation is commonly used in cases involving product liability and defective medical devices, such as the ongoing opioid MDL now pending before a federal judge in Ohio.

For more information on this area of law, see our overview of class action and mass torts.

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