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Are Class Actions and Mass Torts the Same?

You may have heard “mass tort” or “class action” before and wondered: are they the same thing? Though class actions and mass torts are similar, they are actually distinct case types. Each helps large groups of individuals seek the compensation they deserve in a lawsuit, but they do it in different ways.

The main difference between class actions and mass torts is the plaintiff’s degree of control over their case. Here, we explore the similarities and differences between these legal actions to help you understand them better.

What Are Class Actions?

Many people are familiar with the phrase “class action lawsuit.” Also called a “class action,” these lawsuits are led by a small subset of a class of plaintiffs. The class representative is a single or small group of plaintiffs whose claims are identical or substantially similar to the rest of the claims in the class. In a class action, the class representative leads each plaintiff’s case, and individual class members have no control over how the lawsuit progresses.

Class actions typically involve injury claims that span hundreds or thousands of injured people. These often occur in cases such as:

  • Dangerous drug lawsuits
  • Defective product cases
  • Toxic exposure lawsuits (i.e., asbestos litigation)
  • Data breach lawsuits

For example, if a pharmaceutical company develops a dangerous drug that violates Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines, thousands of people may be injured. Rather than file individual lawsuits alone, they can join as a class to seek the compensation they deserve from the drug company.

Requirements for Class Actions

Several specific and highly complicated requirements exist to form a class action lawsuit. The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure or the state-specific civil procedure rules typically govern class action lawsuits. For example, Federal Rules of Civil Procedure Rule 23 governs how to form and manage a class action lawsuit. It sets forth specific guidelines on what requirements class representatives and members must meet to progress with this type of lawsuit.

Class action requirements are quite involved, but some of the primary requirements include:

  • The class size is such that single lawsuits would be impractical
  • The legal issues are common among the class members
  • That the class representatives share the claims and defenses
  • That the class representatives can adequately protect the interests of the class members

An experienced class action litigator understands the many complexities involved with class actions. They can help an individual plaintiff decide whether a class action is right for them and seek the compensation they need.

What Are Mass Torts?

Mass torts also help large groups of plaintiffs fight for their rights, but they do it very differently. A mass tort is more like a typical negligence or personal injury lawsuit. Mass torts usually occur with a large number of plaintiffs who are in the same geographical area. While they always involve multiple plaintiffs, they may involve a single defendant or multiple defendants depending on the specific case facts.

Mass tort lawsuits seek compensation for similar financial or physical injuries that each plaintiff suffered, usually from the same cause or event. They typically stem from some act of misconduct or negligence. Mass torts often target corporations and other businesses but may also be against individuals.

How Do Mass Torts Work?

Mass tort cases begin as individual lawsuits filed by multiple plaintiffs. Their claims may be combined into a single mass tort lawsuit when identical or substantially similar. Courts or judges will do this to streamline the litigation process and conserve precious judicial resources. The logic behind this is simple: if each plaintiff’s case involves much of the same investigation and legal claims, it makes sense to combine these efforts to reduce the strain on every party. Mass torts can help reduce the time and cost for the plaintiffs, defendants, and the court to finalize the lawsuit.

The case may be combined into multidistrict litigation if the plaintiffs come from multiple jurisdictions, such as different states. This type of mass tort places the lawsuit in a single court empowered to handle cases from multiple jurisdictions or even across the country. This is especially common in defective product lawsuits but could occur in many other situations.

Differences Between Class Actions and Mass Torts

The primary difference between class actions and mass torts is how the group of plaintiffs is handled. Class actions combine every plaintiff into a group represented by the class representative. Their claims are fully controlled by the representative and the attorneys handling the case. The class representative stands in for the plaintiffs, who are all subject to the representative’s settlement, dismissal, or litigation choices. Class members then share in the total settlement and divide it according to specific rules and guidelines set forth by the lawsuit.

Mass torts are often used when a class action is inappropriate. This usually happens because one or more requirements for the class action are not met. For example, each plaintiff may have different defenses or causes of action arising from the same event. In this case, a court may consolidate them into a mass tort. However, each plaintiff is still distinct and not part of a larger class. Each plaintiff must prove their case and maintain individual control over their lawsuit.

While both involve multiple plaintiffs, mass torts usually involve fewer plaintiffs than class actions. Class action lawsuits could include millions of people, such as in data breach cases against phone companies. Mass tort litigation usually involves hundreds to a few thousand plaintiffs at most. Experienced litigators understand these differences well and which strategy is best for your case.

Morris & Dewett provides this information to the public for general education and interest. The firm does not represent clients in every topic discussed in answers to frequent questions. The information is curated and produced based on questions commonly asked or search terms commonly used. Every effort is made to provide accurate information. Do not make any decision solely based on the information provided, please seek relevant counsel for each topic area. Consult an attorney before making any legal decision, consult a doctor before making any medical decision, and consult a financial advisor before making any fiscal decision. Information provided is not legal advice. If you have any legal needs, please do not hesitate to contact us. We are pleased to assist you.

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