What is the Difference Between a Mass Tort and Class Action?

While most people have heard of class action lawsuits, few outside of the legal profession are familiar with the term mass tort. Both types of proceedings involve a large number of plaintiffs who seek to sue the same defendants over similar injuries. However, mass torts and class action lawsuits are distinct in several important ways.

Similarities between a Mass Tort and Class Action

Mass tort and class actions are both intended to promote judicial efficiency by decreasing the number of court cases that arise from common allegations of wrongdoing.  As such, the two types of proceedings share a number of similarities:

  • Both involve a large group of plaintiffs who have been allegedly harmed.
  • The harm is attributed to common defendants.
  • The claims are consolidated into one action or proceeding.

Key Differences

Class actions are appropriate when potential plaintiffs have incurred identical damages, and when the anticipated compensation is too low to justify pursuing individual claims. Instead, all of the class members will be included in a single class action complaint, and will be represented by a one individual known as the Class Representative.  Specific criteria for a class action lawsuit include:

  • Potential class members must be notified and given a chance to opt-out if they would rather pursue an individual claim.
  • A motion must be filed in order for the Court to appoint a Class Representative.
  • It must be demonstrated that a class action is the best way to hold defendants accountable and that individual lawsuits would not be as beneficial or cost-effective.

In a class action lawsuit, the Class Representative will make all of the important decisions regarding the prosecution of the complaint, including whether or not to accept a settlement offer. If a case is successful, compensation is usually divided equally among all of the plaintiffs, minus attorney’s fees and costs. However, the Class Representative may be awarded a higher amount due to their extensive participation in the litigation.

Mass torts  are more complicated than class actions, as they usually involve a wider range of injuries and damages from the same wrongful act. Typical mass torts involve defective consumer products, drugs or medical devices; mass transit accidents; and preventable disasters such oil spills.

When a mass tort is established, all of the individual lawsuit will be transferred to a single judge in one jurisdiction. This allows a group of attorneys to coordinate the litigation on behalf of all plaintiffs. The cases will undergo coordinated pretrial proceedings, eliminating the risk of duplicative discovery and inconsistent court rulings from multiple judges. However, each case maintains its own identity, and individual plaintiffs continue to maintain control over their own lawsuit.

Mass tort proceedings generally convene a series of bellwether trials in which a small number of representative cases are chosen to go before juries. The outcomes of the trials are not binding on the other cases in the litigation, but they may provide important insight into how juries could rule in similar lawsuits. The verdicts can act as a guide should the parties seek to reach a global settlement that would resolve most of the claims pending in the mass tort.

In a mass tort, each lawsuit is ultimately judged according to its own merits. Any damages awarded will vary from plaintiff to plaintiff, depending on the severity of their injuries. Once the mass tort proceeding has concluded, any lawsuits that have not been settled or otherwise resolved will be returned to their original court of filing for trial.

Looking for a Class Action or Mass Tort Attorney? Contact Our Office Today.

Bernstein Liebhard LLP has successfully represented hundreds of plaintiffs in mass torts and class action lawsuits. If you are interested in pursuing such a case, please contact our office at (888) 994-5118.

  1. Law Information Institute (N.D.) “Class Action: An Overview” https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/class_action
  2. American Bar Association (N.D.) “Litigation: Mass Torts” http://apps.americanbar.org/litigation/committees/masstorts/home.html
Last Modified: June 2, 2016

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