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Class Action vs. Mass Tort: A Brief Explanation

toby munz

Mass Tort and Class Action: What’s the Difference?

Most people have heard of class action lawsuits but, there is another type of litigation—termed “mass tort” litigation— that provides a similar form for judicial relief. For example, both types of procedural actions involve:

  • A large group of plaintiffs that have been allegedly harmed.
  • Common defendants that are alleged to have caused that harm.
  • A lawsuit that is consolidated into one action, and not into separate individual lawsuits.

 The key difference between mass torts and class actions has to do with how, procedurally, the large group of plaintiffs is treated.

A class action is a type of legal action where a lawsuit is filed on behalf of an entire group of people. This means all members of the class are treated as one plaintiff, not separately. In this type of lawsuit, a representative sues defendants for the entire class. If a court permits such a representative to proceed, the class is deemed “certified.”  Under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the requirements for a class action are that:

(1) the class is so numerous that joinder of all members is impracticable;

(2) there are questions of law or fact common to the class;

(3) the claims or defenses of the representative parties are typical of the claims or defenses of the class; and

(4) the representative parties will fairly and adequately protect the interests of the class.

Fed. R. Civ. P. 23. 

Individual claims involving the same product or defect which are not allowed to proceed as a class action are referred to as mass tort claims. These are individual claims bundled together for pre-trial proceedings in order to save time and money. This is either done in state court by consolidating the cases or in federal court through Multidistrict Litigation (MDL). At the end of the pre-trial proceedings, the individual claims are sent back to the jurisdictions in which they were filed for trial.

With mass torts, each plaintiff, even though they are part of a large group, is treated as an individual. That means, for instance, that for each plaintiff certain facts need to be established, including anything individual to that particular plaintiff, and how that person has been damaged by the actions of defendant. Anthony J. Sebok, author of What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Mass Torts? writes, “Mass torts are more homogeneous than masses of car accidents or medical misadventures because classes of victims share a common factual pattern–if nothing else, a common source of injury.”  As explored by Amy Dunn Taylor, mass tort litigations can take on various forms:

  • Individual suits alleging injury as a result of exposures to a single type of product (e.g., silicone implant or injection litigation);
  • One suit in which several plaintiffs join and allege similar injuries arising out of different exposures (e.g., the asbestos litigation); and
  • One or more suits brought by multiple plaintiffs alleging injuries as a result of a single event (e.g., the 1992 gas pipeline explosion in Brenham or an airplane crash).

In the United States, prior mass torts have involved asbestos,pharmaceuticals, and medical devices, among many others.

 Procedurally, both class action and mass tort litigations provide a more efficient means of navigating injured clients through our court system; and, a means through which to attain speedy compensation.