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What Does It Mean to be the Lead Plaintiff or Class Representative?

The role of a named party in a Washington class action suit

A class action is a lawsuit where a large number of individual plaintiffs with similar claims bring a single case against one or more defendants. For example, if hundreds of individual consumers have been injured by the same defective consumer product, these consumers could maintain a class action against the manufacturer under Washington law. But practically speaking, it would be impossible for hundreds—or potentially thousands—of plaintiffs to manage the lawsuit.

This is why all class action cases have a “lead plaintiff” or “class representative.” This is the person who serves as the named plaintiff in the class action lawsuit itself. The lead plaintiff or class representative takes the active role in all stages of the class action, on behalf of the remaining plaintiffs, who are known as “class members.”

Who Can Serve as Lead Plaintiff?

A lead plaintiff is often the first person to contact a law firm and seek legal advice from  a Washington class action lawyer about bringing a lawsuit. In many cases, however, the class action attorneys may seek out a potential lead plaintiff whom they feel is more “representative” of the members of the class as a whole. This is important, because under Washington civil procedure rules, the proposed lead plaintiff or class representative must “fairly and adequately protect the interests of the class.”

It is also important to understand that even after a class action lawsuit is filed, the class itself must still be “certified” by a judge. Certification is a determination that the lawsuit meets all the legal requirements to be maintained as class action litigation. Additionally, certification confirms the role of the lead plaintiff or class representative.

The Class Representative’s Responsibilities

Unlike most class members, the lead plaintiff or class representative is expected to take an active role in the class action, which can take many years to complete. The lead plaintiff will work directly with the class action lawyers in making key decisions about the litigation. The class representative must also typically be available for certain major events, including depositions and pre-trial hearings.

The lead plaintiff also plays a critical role in class action settlement talks. Many class actions never get to trial. Instead, they are resolved after the class has been certified but before the case gets in front of a jury. The class representative is the person with the authority to approve or reject a settlement offer that will bind the entire class.

What Is the Lead Plaintiff’s Compensation?

In exchange for playing such an important role, the representative plaintiff will also typically receive a larger percentage of any final settlement or judgment than other class members. There is no exact formula for determining just how much the class representative receives. It is ultimately up to the judge overseeing the case. But the court will look at a number of factors, including the nature of the alleged injury and the overall size of the settlement or award.

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

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