Class Action vs. Mass Tort: What’s the Difference?

While both types of lawsuits involve many people, sometimes thousands, there are unique differences between a mass tort and a class action.

Let’s start with the similarities.

How Class Actions and Mass Torts Are Alike…

Both class actions and mass torts arise when a group of people have been injured or financially harmed by the same product or company. The group will unite to sue a single defendant. In both types of lawsuits, a law firm will file the suit on behalf of the individuals or plaintiffs.

…And How They Are Different

The difference between the two is how a case gets filed and what happens if there is an award.

In a class action, it’s a solitary case, filed by the lead plaintiff against a defendant. Other individuals who have been injured in the same manner become class members in the case. A single lawyer or law firm represents the case until it’s either dismissed, settled, or resolved at a trial.

A mass tort lawsuit typically involves several similar lawsuits against the same defendant. There are many individual cases, handled by separate lawyers against one defendant. Eventually, a judge may consolidate the cases to streamline the process. However, each case remains separate as well as the outcome and compensation, if any.

Differences in Compensation

Awards or compensation distributions differ between the two types of lawsuits. With a class action award, any monies get distributed equally to all eligible claimants.

In a mass tort, the compensation awards depend on the individual case. Ideally, plaintiffs who have suffered more injury or monetary loss recover more money than those who have undergone less severe damage.

For example, if one person took a prescription drug and experienced an incapacitating stroke would receive more compensation than another plaintiff who took the same drug but had a minor heart attack. The award for each would reflect the difference in the severity of the injury.

  • Grounds for a Mass Tort or Class Actions include:
  • Defective Consumer Products
  • Prescription drugs
  • Over-the-counter drugs
  • Medical devices
  • Automobiles
  • Consumer and security fraud
  • Corporate misconduct
  • Environmental disasters like oil spills, water pollution, and pesticide poisoning
  • Mass disasters such as airline crashes, mining accidents, or oil refinery explosions

Other well-known examples of mass torts are cases with asbestos, cigarettes, and lead poisoning.

Do I have a Choice?

First, a class action must meet specific requirements.

The following four criteria for class action lawsuits come from the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure:

  1. The class is so large that joinder (hearing all the issues together) of all members is impracticable.
  2. There are common facts or questions of law across the entire class.
  3. The claims or defenses of the plaintiff are the same as the rest of the class members. 
  4. The representative parties (plaintiff) will fairly and adequately protect the interests of the class members. 

Before a class action lawsuit can proceed, there must be a motion filed in court for a representative to act as the lead plaintiff on behalf of the entire class. The class members will receive a notice and have the choice to opt-in or out.

A mass tort tends to be more complicated, but it is often a second option if a class action is not possible. This will happen when the group’s situations are too different from the lead plaintiff.

Be sure to check with an attorney who has experience with your specific legal situation. They should guide you during a free initial consultation.

Make the Right Mass Tort Decisions