Author: James Barry, Partner
Outside of the relatively small group of attorneys that make a living pursuing class actions and mass tort cases, there is significant confusion about what the terms ‘class action’ and ‘mass tort’ mean and how the cases differ.
The confusion likely stems from the fact that both class action and mass tort cases involve claims that a Defendant has done something wrong which has affected a large number of people.
There are some key distinctions between the way the cases are handled by the Courts as well as the types of claims which fit within each type of case.
The technical explanation of how a class action works can be summarized as a form of representative litigation in which one or more representatives litigate on behalf of absent class members who, if the class is certified, are bound by the outcome of the litigation.
What does that mean in practice? It means that class action cases are brought by either a single plaintiff or a small group of plaintiffs who pursue the case on behalf of a much larger group.
Generally speaking, class action cases do not involve personal injuries, although there are some notable exceptions like the NFL Concussion Litigation. Instead, class cases usually focus on cases where a Defendant or group of Defendants have acted in a way that caused a group of people monetary harm.
Some specific examples include:
Claims in these cases may involve a violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), a violation of your State’s laws on the minimum wage, or how deductions are taken for pay (in my home State of New Jersey, for example, the minimum wage at the time of this blog is $13.00 per hour).
These cases may be brought as class actions or, in the case of an FLSA violation, a special type of case called a collective action.
Data breaches involve security failures by companies or other entities which result in sensitive, protected or confidential data being stolen, transmitted to, or viewed by an individual who is not authorized to receive the information.
This information is often then sold on forums to scammers who can commit financial fraud.
Insurance or medical information involved in a data breach can also lead to health insurance fraud, creating havoc in individuals’ medical histories and complicating healthcare.
Claims in data breach cases seek to compensate plaintiffs for the increased risk that they will have fraud in the future, for the time and expense of dealing with a data breach involving their information, as well as money damages from criminals committing fraud using bank accounts or insurance information, among other claims.
An example of a large data breach is the Experian Data Breach which occurred in 2017.
Consumer Fraud is a broad category that encompasses deceptive or unfair practices by businesses that deal with consumers.
Breach of Contract
Breach of contract class actions involve claims where a consumer and another individual or a business have entered into a contract and the business or individual has a policy or practice of failing to honor its obligations under the agreement. Often these claims involve insurance companies which fail to pay benefits as required under their policies or claims against other businesses which fail to provide goods or services as required by their contracts with consumers.
Environmental class actions involve claims against polluters who have contaminated an area.
Often, these claims are brought by homeowners whose property value has been reduced as they are within a contaminated area.
Claims can also be made for costs incurred due to the contamination, for example, installing water filters on wells due to contaminated groundwater. Additionally, claims may be made for medical monitoring to cover the costs of doctors’ visits or testing if the contamination is tied to a specific illness or disease.
Mass Torts, in contrast to class actions, are not a single case. Instead, they are a grouping of individual cases alleging the same issues against a single defendant or group of defendants.
These cases are often for personal injuries – meaning the Plaintiffs allege that they were hurt by a Defendant. These cases can arise from consumer products, medical devices, drugs, or injuries caused by environmental contamination.
These claims involve products which can be purchased by any consumer. Examples of the types of claims which have arisen out of consumer products are:
- Roundup weed killer causing Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma
- 3M earplugs failing to protect from hearing damage
- Asbestos causing mesothelioma.
These claims involve medical devices or products which are implanted or used by patients in the care and treatment of a condition.
For example, injuries caused by hernia mesh
These claims involve drugs which are prescribed by a doctor and cause injuries. Examples include: certain cancers caused by contaminated heart medication (Valsartan); Paraguard IUD injuries; and cancer caused by Zantac.
It is important that in Mass Tort cases, unlike class actions, every individual who seeks compensation from a Defendant has to individually make a claim against the Defendants.