What is a Class Action?

John E. Lawes

John E. Lawes, Esq

It may happen that one day you receive a small postcard or letter in the mail stating that you may be able to recover for some lawsuit that you may not have even heard about.  These notices are may be a part of the often misunderstood area of the law known as a class action lawsuit.

In order to better understand class actions it is necessary to understand one of the more complex areas of the law known as standing.  In the simplest terms standing is the ability to sue.  In order to bring a lawsuit a person (or entity) must present his or her own claims.  A person may not sue in place of another.  For example if a husband and wife get into a car accident the husband must sue for his injuries and the wife must sue for hers.  The husband cannot go into court and ask for his wife’s damages.  As with any legal principal there are exceptions.  Minors or otherwise incompetent or incapacitated persons cannot bring their own claims into court so they can be represented by other persons through various legal vehicles.

The class action lawsuit is based on the idea that some wrongs are large in the aggregate but are simply too small for any person with standing to bring them.  A good example is a recent case brought on behalf of persons who bought sneakers which were falsely marketed as providing health benefits.  A single person with standing to sue could only recover damages linked to his or her purchase.  The amount of recovery would not be worth going into court.  However, tens of thousands of these shoes were sold.

The class action lawsuit allows for a few representatives to bring the claims of a large group of similarly situated persons even though they traditionally would not have standing to sue on behalf of others.  In so doing, class actions both benefit the public and add an extra layer of oversight to the market place.

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