Legal English – “Class Action”

A “class action” (Pronunication: KLASS AK-shun; Origin: English) is a suit in which multiple parties appear on either or both sides of the litigation (e.g. there are multiple plaintiffs, multiple defendants or both). In many cases, the reason for doing so is that the anticipated individual recovery for each plaintiff is expected to be small, but, in the aggregate, this recovery appears to be sizable enough to merit litigation.

Here are some example sentences that use the phrase:

  • “Many of the largest damage awards in U.S. legal history were granted in class action lawsuits.”
  • “We overcharged each customer by about a dollar per transaction. It’s not a big deal for each person, but taking into account our hundreds of thousands of customers and millions of transactions each day, we’re probably looking at a massive class action here.”
  • “Slow down. This isn’t a class action yet. The judge hasn’t certified your class, and we intend to mount a significant opposition to your motion.”

As you can see, “class action” can be used as a noun or an adjective, but the adjectival form generally leads to redundancy. That is, the “action” part of “class action” already refers to a lawsuit, so it is not necessary to say “class action suit.” Because the usage is common, however, we have included it above.

In order for a class action to occur, a judge must grant a motion for class certification. In federal cases, the standard for class certification has four main requirements: commonality (similar legal or factual issues predominate across the class), adequacy (the class representative will adequately protect the interests of the class), numerosity (the class is large enough to make individual cases impractical) and typicality (the claims or defenses set forth are typical of the applicable group).

A notorious example of a class action lawsuit is the one that resulted from the Exxon Valdez oil spill in the late 1980s. Oil contaminated the waters of the Prince William Sound off of the Gulf of Alaska, and caused damages to thousands of fishermen, property owners, and other parties affected by the spill. As a result, all such parties became plaintiffs in a consolidated class action suit against Exxon and related entities.