What is the difference between a class action and mass tort?

Caroline U. Hollingsworth, Attorney at Heninger Garrison Davis, LLC.By: Caroline Hollingsworth

Most people have heard of class action lawsuits but are less familiar with the term “mass tort.”   Both are types of lawsuits involving a large number of Plaintiffs wanting to sue for injuries from a defendant’s conduct. Due to the number of Plaintiff’s injured, these lawsuits join a large number of people in an action against the defendant(s).The driving force behind class actions and mass tort lawsuits is to assist the litigation system by decreasing the number of court cases that arise where injuries resulted from the defendant’s wrongful conduct.  Although a class action and mass tort ultimately have the same purpose, the two are handled much differently.

A class action lawsuit is when a person files on behalf of a group of individuals who share common injuries and damages that resulted from the same source. This person is called the class representative.  However, before a class is formed and someone named as the representative, several factors must be taken into consideration. First, the plaintiff must prove the class is so numerous that joining all members is impracticable. Second, everyone in the class must share common questions of law or fact. Third, the plaintiff must prove that his or her injury from the company or product is typical of others involved in the lawsuit. Finally, the representative will fairly and adequately protect the interests of the class. If all of these requirements are met, the class will be certified as a class action (meaning confirmed). In simplistic terms, the class representative and class members must share common injuries from the same party. Many times, the most litigated aspect of the lawsuit is whether or not the class should be certified. Some examples of a class action are customers who bought merchandise with false and misleading labels, customers who overpay for items, or employees subjected to discrimination.

At a quick glance, many assume a mass tort and class action are one in the same. Although a mass tort can involve a large group of people like a class action; it is wrong to believe they are identical. The key difference between the two has to do with how, procedurally, the large group of plaintiffs are treated. Unlike class actions, mass torts do not have to be certified. The plaintiff’s claims are more individualized due to the broader range of injuries.  The most common mass tort cases involve defective drugs and defective products. The negative effects of these drugs and products result in different injuries, making the cases unsuitable to fit into a single class. Therefore, Plaintiffs file their lawsuits separately rather than in a group.

While class actions are already complicated, mass torts are usually more complex. This is derived from the lack of structure and difficulty in following any predictable legal protocol. In addition, the variations in claims filed make it challenging to determine settlements and compensation. Consequently, Plaintiff firms will join with other firms across the nation to help organize, inform, and share ideas to ensure continuity thus providing individuals a fair settlement for their injury.

These are just some similarities and differences between class actions and mass torts. Our firm has extensive experience in handling both types of litigation. So, if you or a loved one are interested or curious about any existing class action or mass tort lawsuits, please contact us so that we may advise you of your legal options.