Class Actions vs. Mass Tort: What Is the Difference?

When individuals suffer harm from the same source, whether a defective product, environmental exposure, or corporate misconduct, they have options to pursue legal action. Two common avenues for collective action in the United States are class actions and mass torts.

While both involve large groups of plaintiffs and similar legal issues, they operate under distinct legal frameworks with significant differences in procedural structure, individual control, and outcomes.

Class Actions

A class action lawsuit allows a single named plaintiff, the class representative, to sue on behalf of a larger group of individuals sharing the same legal claims against the same defendant. It aims to streamline litigation by resolving common issues in one proceeding, preventing repetitive litigation, and promoting judicial efficiency.

Key Features of Class Actions

  • Common Legal Issues: The claims of all class members must arise from the same or similar transaction, event, or course of conduct, and raise common questions of law or fact. If individual issues predominate, the case cannot proceed as a class action.
  • Representation and Notice: A named plaintiff, chosen by the court or with its approval, acts as the class representative, while a court-appointed lead attorney manages the litigation. All potential class members receive notice of the lawsuit and their right to opt out or object to the settlement or decision.
  • Binding Effect: A judgment or settlement in a class action binds all class members who do not opt out, even if they did not actively participate in the litigation.

Mass Tort

Unlike class actions, mass tort involves individual lawsuits filed by multiple plaintiffs against the same defendant, often arising from the same harmful event or product. While these cases are consolidated for pretrial proceedings to manage discovery and potential common legal issues, each plaintiff retains individual control over their lawsuit.

Key Features of Mass Torts

  • Individual Lawsuits: Each plaintiff files and pursues their own lawsuit, with their own attorney, evidence, and arguments. Settlements or judgments only bind the individual parties involved.
  • Coordination and Consolidation: To manage discovery and common legal issues efficiently, mass tort cases are often consolidated in multidistrict litigation (MDL) before a single judge for pretrial proceedings. However, liability and damages are ultimately determined in individual trials or settlements.
  • Greater Plaintiff Control: Each plaintiff maintains control over their case, including decisions on settlement offers, trial participation, and appeals.

Choosing the Right Path

The appropriate avenue for collective litigation depends on several factors, including the level of factual similarity among the claims, the number of potential plaintiffs, and the desired level of individual control.

  • Class Actions: Preferred if claims are highly unified, the number of plaintiffs is large, and streamlined litigation is desired. However, individual issues may delay or derail the case, and settlement may not fully compensate all members.
  • Mass Torts: Suitable if claims have some but not perfect overlap, individual circumstances vary, and plaintiffs value control over their cases. However, the process can be more time-consuming and expensive than class actions due to multiple lawsuits.

a lawyer analyzes your case before deciding if you can join a class action suit

Key Legal Rules to Consider

There are various specific legal rules applicable to both class actions and mass torts, providing a deeper understanding of the hurdles and opportunities they present.

Class Actions: Rule 23

The cornerstone of class action litigation in the United States is Federal Rule of Civil Procedure Rule 23, which establishes the requirements for a lawsuit to proceed as a class action. To be certified, a class action must satisfy all four elements of Rule 23(a) and at least one of the elements of Rule 23(b).

Rule 23(a) – Number, Commonality, Typicality, and Adequacy:

  • Number: The class must be so numerous that joining all members individually would be impractical. Courts generally look for at least 40 members, but the threshold can vary depending on the specific case and context.
  • Commonality: There must be common questions of law or fact that predominate over individual issues. This means the claims of the class members must share a significant factual or legal core.
  • Typicality: The claims of the named plaintiff must be typical of the claims of the class as a whole. The representative plaintiff must not have unique circumstances that would distinguish their case from the broader class.
  • Adequacy: The named plaintiff and their counsel must be able to adequately represent the interests of the entire class. This requires demonstrating that they have no conflicts of interest and are capable of vigorously pursuing the class’s claims.

Rule 23(b) – Superiority and Predominance:

At least one of the three elements under Rule 23(b) must also be satisfied for a class action to proceed. These elements are:

  • Superiority: The class action must be a superior method for adjudicating the controversy compared to individual lawsuits. This means it should be more efficient, fair, and convenient than separate litigation by each class member.
  • Predominance: Common questions of law or fact must predominate over individual issues. This requirement ensures that the class action is not simply a collection of individual claims disguised as a single lawsuit.
  • Practicality: Even if the other requirements are met, a court may still deny class certification if it finds that conducting the lawsuit as a class would be impractical or unmanageable.

Mass Tort: Rule 42 and MDL

While mass tort cases do not involve a single class action lawsuit, Rule 42 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure plays a crucial role in their management. This rule allows for the consolidation of multiple lawsuits involving common questions of fact or law for pretrial proceedings. This consolidation, known as MDL, can streamline discovery, reduce costs, and promote consistency in rulings.

Meeting all of these requirements can be challenging, and courts carefully scrutinize class action proposals before granting certification.

Get in Touch With a Class Action Attorney Immediately

Class actions and mass torts play vital roles in providing access to justice for individuals harmed by large-scale misconduct or wrongdoing. Recognizing the fundamental differences between these two avenues empowers plaintiffs to make informed choices and seek appropriate legal representation.

Contact Class Action Lawyer Coalition at 855-938-0980 for a free consultation right away!