America's corporate history is peppered with David and Goliath stories where an almighty corporation is taken on by a lone whistleblower determined to expose unlawful actions or dangerous products. Whether it's battling Big Tobacco, identifying cancer clusters in your community or getting a malfunctioning car seat taken off the market, if other people share your complaint, a class action lawsuit may offer the appropriate legal remedy.
Understand the legal terms: A class action is a procedure used to efficiently handle a lawsuit in which a large number of people have been injured by a common act, or set of actions, or product. A suit is not considered a class action until there is a court order making it such.
Research the scope of the problem. How you do this will depend greatly on the issue. The Web is a tremendous resource: Visit chat rooms and online support groups to find information that relates directly or tangentially to your lawsuit.
Hire an attorney who specializes in the type of lawsuit you are pursuing. For instance, if you are suing a current or former employer for discrimination or back wages, hire an employment or labor lawyer. There are also attorneys who specialize in securities, product liability and defective manufacturing. Many lawyers who take on class action suits work on a contingency basis, which might be more than 30 percent of the final settlement.
Determine with your lawyer whether your lawsuit has broad appeal. It all depends on the problem. Again, use the Web to help identify potential plaintiffs. Dig up information from government agencies or congressional representatives. Place an ad in a newspaper after a class action is certified by a court.
File your case, then a motion for class certification. In order to qualify, you must prove that you have a sufficient number of plaintiffs involved, all of whom were subject to similar misconduct, and you must show that each person is making the same allegations. Your attorney must also prove that common questions predominate in the suit rather than individualized issues. He or she will handle this.
Send notices to potential members of the class suit. You as the plaintiff (and your lawyer) are responsible for this. The defendants must provide their names and addresses. Your legal team must also publish a notice in nationwide papers such as The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. Some potential class lawsuit members may opt to sue on their own or not at all.
Prepare your case and get ready to go to court.
- Select your lawyer carefully. Some lawyers love class actions because of the exposure it brings them, not to mention the money. Word of mouth may be the best way to find a credible lawyer. You might also contact a lawyer referral service such as LegalMatch.net. Interview several potential attorneys before hiring one.
- Many years can pass before a final settlement in a class action suit is made.
- You can be the lead plaintiff acting on behalf of the other members in the class action. You simply need to have enough coplaintiffs to justify the suit as a class action; and while that can be millions of people in some cases, it can be as few as 20 in others.
- A class action suit can prove to be more efficient for the judicial system and reap larger settlements, so don't be surprised if lawyers push for a class action suit rather than individual litigation.
- Talk to journalists at legal newspapers and magazines to get an objective perspective on the inner workings of class action suits. They may be able to help you research your case or suggest an appropriate attorney.