Class action lawsuits allow groups of people to join together and take legal action against a common defendant in situations where it would otherwise not be financially viable to file individual lawsuits. If the defendant opts to settle with the group or loses at trial, all class members who have not opted-out of the suit are given a share of the total compensation granted. Class action litigations are often complex, with thousands of claimants coming forward claiming injury and demanding monetary damages. The first steps taken set the tone and are critical to the efficiency of the litigation through to resolution. Here are how these lawsuits get started.

First Steps Toward Class Action

Meet with an attorney. Most class action attorneys offer a free legal evaluation to explore the strengths and weaknesses of a prospective case. They will complete a preliminary factual investigation, review all legal options available, and weigh chances of success. These early discussions offer potential clients some time to consider whether the law firm is a good fit. If both the claimant and the attorney feel the case should proceed, they will enter into a contingency fee agreement whereby payment for legal services is contingent on the amount recovered in the case. If the class action fails, the client would owe the law firm nothing.

File a formal complaint. The complaint is the legal document that formally initiates the class action proceedings. The attorney prepares a complaint describing the events that led to harm. The complaint outlines the legal issues and allegations that would entitle the plaintiffs to recovery and lists the damages they are seeking.

Decide whether to initiate or join a class action. If early discovery identifies the existence of similar claims arising from the same central set of facts against a common defendant, the individual claimant may be able to join an existing class action or initiate their own class action. If the defendant has significant resources to go up against one lawsuit, it makes sense to bargain collectively. Class actions may also be prudent in cases where the amount of tangible harm suffered is relatively low.

Class Certification, Compliance, and Procedure

Seek class certification. One of the most critical steps of the class action lawsuit is receiving class certification through the court. Depending on the state, either the court will initiate the certification process, or the lead plaintiff must file a motion to have the class certified before proceedings may begin. To gain certification, attorneys generally must prove that the case is sufficiently numerous (over 40 class members); that common questions exist for all members; class representatives are typical of the class; class reps have no serious conflicts of interest with other class members, and the class attorney has adequate experience with both the subject matter and class action in general. Other conditions are also applicable depending on specific case factors.

Class certification is vital to getting the litigation off the ground. How smoothly this process goes depends a great deal on preparation and attorney resources. A law firm that works with a class action claims administrator can help expedite the certification process.

Ensure the case meets basic requirements. A judge has the power to reject the class action proposal from the outset. Attorneys should be aware of new regulations and compliance standards, both federally and on the state level.

Achieve court appointment. Once appointed, law firms must work to remain the court-appointed class counsel. This involves considerable case preparation, a notification plan to identify potential claimants, presenting a history of similar class action experience, demonstrating familiarity with the legal issues, and showcasing a commitment to equity and fairness.

Lead Plaintiff

The lead plaintiff is typically either the first person who came forward to file the claim or the plaintiff who, after hundreds of individual interviews, is deemed most representative of the class experience. Also known as the “class representative,” this individual (sometimes more than one) works closest with the attorneys and witnesses, attends hearings, and participates in the discovery process, often submitting to depositions and providing other evidence in their possession. Most importantly, the lead plaintiff is responsible for accepting or rejecting settlement offers and weighing the best interests of the class.

Class actions start off complicated and tend to get more complicated the larger they grow and longer they go on. Check out our FAQ for class members.