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What is a Class Action Lawsuit?

A class-action lawsuit is a legal action filed against a defendant by a group of individuals. It is designed for situations in which many individuals have suffered similar injuries as a result of the defendant’s actions.

When They Are Used

Class action lawsuits are appropriate when the damages claimed by each plaintiff are too small for individual claims to be worthwhile. By filing a suit as a group, the plaintiffs have the resources to hire an attorney and obtain restitution. Class actions also relieve courts of the burden of hearing hundreds or thousands of small claims.

Class action lawsuits are often filed against government entities, financial institutions, manufacturers, retailers, and employers. Many are based on allegations of defective products, false advertising, discrimination, or unlawful employment practices. Some suits have alleged that the defendant violated the Consumer Protection Act.

How They Work

In a class-action lawsuit, the group (class) of plaintiffs is represented by one or more lead plaintiffs. The injuries suffered and the allegations alleged by the lead plaintiff must be similar to those of the other class members. Otherwise, the lead plaintiff won’t be a suitable representative of the class.

Before a class action lawsuit can proceed, the class must be certified by a judge. The lead plaintiff must demonstrate that the plaintiffs have a valid claim against the defendant and that all class members have similar claims. The lead plaintiff must also show that he or she can adequately represent all group members.

Once the class has been certified, the plaintiffs are notified of the lawsuit by mail or other means. All are automatically included in the lawsuit unless they are opt-out. Those that wish to withdraw from the class must follow a specified procedure. If they fail to do so, they will remain part of the class.

Important: Most class actions are settled out of court. Each plaintiff receives a portion of the settlement, which may consist of cash, a refund, a service, or some other benefit.


Class-action lawsuits offer the following advantages:

  • Provide restitution to plaintiffs who would otherwise receive nothing because they cannot afford an attorney
  • Reduce the cost of litigation. One suit is cheaper to litigate than many small ones.
  • Ensure that defendants with similar injuries are treated consistently. One decision applies to the entire class.
  • Motivate defendants to settle since there are many plaintiffs


Class-actions lawsuits also have disadvantages. Here are some of them.

  • Plaintiffs may receive a very small award while attorneys earn large fees.
  • Cases take a long time to settle because of the complex procedures involved.
  • Class members cede control over the suit to the lead plaintiff and his or her attorney.
  • The quality of legal representation affects all class members. If the lawyer does a poor job, all members suffer.
  • Plaintiffs may receive coupons or rebates instead of cash.

Important: Plaintiffs in a class action give up their right to sue the defendant independently. If they lose in court, they cannot file individual suits against the defendant.

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