Legal System

What Is a Class Action?


You have probably heard about class actions. But do you know what they are and how they work? How can you be part of a class action? How do you get the money you might be entitled to?

The Class Action: Force in Numbers

A class action is a court case where one person makes a request to the court on behalf of everyone who had the same problem. They are called “members” of the class.

If the person wins the case, all members can get an amount of money or other compensation. They don’t have to go to court themselves.

There have been many class actions since the law allowed them in 1979. Some received lots of news coverage, for example:

  • the class actions against tobacco companies on behalf of people who got cancer or became addicted to nicotine
  • the class action against a large yogurt producer for false statements about the health benefits of yogurt
  • the class action against manufacturers of computer parts because of high prices of some dynamic memory devices (DRAM)

But many class actions are not widely known, so it’s a good idea to find out for yourself. You might be a member in a class action without even knowing about it.

Starting a Class Action

The person who starts a class action is called the representative. The representative must hire a lawyer. The lawyer helps the representative bring the case to court and acts for all members.

The representative must ask a judge for permission to take the class action. If the judge decides the situation merits a class action, the representative can go ahead with the action.

Taking Part in a Class Action

When judges authorize a class action, they set the requirements for becoming a member of the class.

Once the class action is authorized, the representative is the only member actively involved in it. The other members don’t have to do anything. But they can get information on the progress of the case to see if they’ll be entitled to compensation.

Note that a member can take her own action in court as long as she opts out of the class.

A Long, Complicated Process

Getting a judge’s permission to start a class action is just the first step. The whole process can take many years. For example, members of a class action against banks for overcharged fees had to wait over 12 years before they got any money.

The class action can end in a trial or be settled out of court. If settled, a judge must approve the agreement between the sides in the case.

Getting Your Money

When the case is over, members might get a right to compensation. The judge or settlement agreement states what they can get.

The judge also orders that a notice be published in newspapers, on a website or otherwise to tell the members how the class action was decided. This notice also appears in registries of class actions.

The notice must state what the members can get and how to get it.

Members have a deadline to get their money. So, it’s a good idea to keep up-to-date on the progress of a class action and act quickly when it comes time to ask for your money.