In the modern world, where a powerful corporation takes advantage of its superior bargaining power, individual consumers may find themselves with few options to protect their rights. Hiring an attorney can be expensive, and resolving a small commercial dispute generally isn’t worth the cost of litigation. Nevertheless, when corporations engage in a practice of systematically overcharging or treating consumers unfairly, the total benefit they reap can add up to a massive amount of money, to the detriment of consumers, and the benefit of the corporation alike. This is where a good plaintiff’s lawyer can vindicate the rights of consumers by using a procedural tool that allows an attorney to litigate on behalf of a large group rather than an individual: class actions.
Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure allows a lawyer to litigate on behalf of a large group of similarly situated people if certain requirements are met. There have to be enough people, the claims have to be similar to a certain degree, and one of the members of the group, known as the class representative, must have a claim that illustrates the rest. That class representative must work closely with the plaintiff’s lawyer in litigating the case from beginning to end, and both the representative and the attorney owe a duty to represent the entire group fairly and adequately.
Class actions are particularly useful in the consumer context. For example, they often involve subscriptions for services, overcharges on bank accounts, underpaid employees, or defective and unsafe medical products. However, this is not the only area where class actions are useful. As long as a lawyer can logically apply Rule 23 or the state equivalent to a plaintiff’s situation, a class action can be applied in nearly any context.
A prominent recent example of a class action is the Volkswagen emissions scandal, in which the automobile manufacturers designed their cars to show a lower volume of greenhouse gases emissions in testing situations than while actually driving. By September 27, 2015, at least 34 class actions had been filed in the United States and Canada on behalf of the owners of Volkswagen and Audi cars that displayed diminished horsepower and fuel efficiency after fixing them to comply with pollution regulations. One of the more notable settlements to come out of this litigation was in May 2017, when a federal judge in San Francisco approved a $1.2-billion settlement for owners of 88,500 Volkswagens with 3-liter diesel engines. This example shows while an individual lawsuit might not be very profitable for an individual or a law firm to pursue, a class action may be an effective tool to achieve justice for the consumer and deter unfair conduct by large corporations.
If you have been subject to a legal wrong, and you think you’re not the only one, please call our office at (805) 498-1212.