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How to File a Class Action Lawsuit

Sometimes the action (or inaction) of one entity can cause a familiar pattern of injuries to dozens or even thousands of individuals. For instance, if a manufacturer illegally dumps toxic waste into the local river, eventually contaminating the town's drinking water, it can lead to a spike in specific types of cancer among those exposed. While those sickened by the contamination may file individual claims, class action lawsuits tap into the collective strength of similar complaints against a common defendant.

Class action lawsuits can benefit a large group of plaintiffs through a single legal action, but knowing how to get started can be quite daunting. This article discusses how to file a class action lawsuit, including the main elements a judge will consider before allowing it to move forward.

The Class Action Complaint

As with any other lawsuit, the opening salvo of a class action is the initial complaint. The complaint may list just one or two plaintiffs at first, since it will be subject to class certification by the judge before it's publicly announced to prospective class members. Specific claims of the initial plaintiff (or plaintiffs) -- referred to as the "representative plaintiff" -- are elaborated in the complaint just as they are in non-class action claims.

The complaint then identifies other individuals or legal entities who also may have suffered injuries through the same cause of action, by the same defendant(s). This is called a "class." This section of the complaint will make the argument that the class consists of a large enough number of individuals that a class action is appropriate. It may also argue that the claims of the individual class members -- though collectively a significant amount -- are too small for them to pursue through individual claims. Finally, in the prayer for relief, the complaint will ask that the court certify the legal action as a class action.

The 2006 class action complaint against Enron Corp. and the Northern Trust Co. alleging securities fraud provides a good illustration.

What You Must Prove for Class Certification

Specific requirements for class certification -- that is, the approval of the class action by a judge -- vary by state but tend to follow similar guidelines. Some jurisdictions require the representative plaintiff to file a motion for class certification, while others initiate the process after the complaint is filed. In any event, the plaintiff must prove the following in order to have a civil action certified as a class action:

  • The representative plaintiff's (alleged) injuries are the same as those suffered by the prospective class members.
  • Class is clearly defined to the degree that it will be possible and practical to identity potential class members.
  • The injuries of all potential class members resulted from a common set of facts and legal theories, and are so similar to those of the representative plaintiff that their absence from the trial will not present a problem.
  • There is a large enough number of class members, which would be impractical for a non-class action suit.
  • Ultimately, a class action would be the most efficient way to resolve these claims.

The judge will then certify the class if they agree with the representative plaintiff's arguments for certification. If not, the case is dismissed (but may be re-filed as a non-class action complaint). After certification -- which is not a statement of liability -- public notices are sent to potential class members, either with an option to opt-in or stating that those who qualify already are considered part of the class. Also, settlement negotiations may begin in earnest after certification.

Get Help from a Class Action Attorney

If you believe your claim would be more appropriate as a class action, you'll want to work with an attorney who knows to file a class action lawsuit. These are complicated matters that benefit from specialized expertise. Get started today by contacting a class action attorney near you.

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