What is a Class Action?
A class action is a powerful legal tool which allows ordinary people to join forces to fight injustice. Class actions differ from regular lawsuits, in that they usually involve many people, working together, to focus their collective strength against a single wrongdoer, usually a large, multi-national corporation.
The purpose of class actions is to help level the legal playing field between big corporations and average people. The goals of a class action may be summarized as follows:
- Access to justice: i.e., to give people who might not otherwise be able to afford a lawyer a chance to have their day in court;
- Judicial economy: i.e., to save court costs in the handling of large cases, involving many injured people;
- Behaviour modification: i.e., to punish corporate wrongdoing, and to force corporations to pay for any harm they have caused.
There are 5 distinct stages to a class action.
- In Canada, a lawsuit starts when the plaintiff files a document with the court called a "Statement of Claim". This document sets out all the facts which the plaintiff hopes to prove in his or her case. The Statement of Claim tells the defendant what the lawsuit is about, and sets the stage, either for settlement, or for battle.
- The Certification Motion: Before the plaintiff can proceed any farther with the class action, it is first necessary to get the court's approval of the case as a class action. The court does not decide the merits of the case at this early stage, but merely, examines whether the case is appropriate for treatment as a class action. The court looks at whether the case raises common issues, and at whether there are alternative means for handling the plaintiff's claim. If the court decides that a class action is the "preferable procedure" for dealing with the plaintiff's claim, then the lawsuit is certified as a class action, and it is allowed to go forward. If not, then the plaintiff will only be allowed to bring his or her claim as a separate, individual lawsuit.
- Most class actions settle once the Court decides to approve a class action. A defendant is anxious to settle because once a Court approves a class action, the defendant is exposed to the claims of hundreds and sometimes thousands of plaintiffs and therefore the financial pressures on the defendant to settle are substantial.
- If the case does not settle, then it goes to trial. During the trial, the claims of the "representative plaintiffs" are heard. Representative plaintiffs are the people who initially had the courage and foresight to start the lawsuit. Generally, if they are successful in proving their claims, then all other persons, with similar claims, will also benefit.
- Damage Distribution: Assuming the representative plaintiffs were successful at the common trial, then there should be money to distribute to all those persons who had enrolled in the class action, whether or not they actually participated in the common trial. Money can be distributed to class members in a number of ways. It may be that a class member can simply submit a claim form to the plaintiff's lawyers, in order to be reimbursed. It may be that certain class members will need to go to a lawyer's office to give sworn evidence, or attend a mediation or arbitration, or even a mini-trial, before getting reimbursed. How the money will be distributed, will depend on the type of case that was brought, and the number of people who are entitled to compensation.
Each of these stages can take a long time, or a short time. In Ontario, some class actions have gone from start to finish in under 6 months. In other cases however, defendants have fought long and hard to avoid liability. There are many cases which have gone on for years and years, and still have not been resolved. It is hard to predict how long a particular case will last, particularly in the face of a determined opponent. The battle for justice however, is never easy. One must be patient, and determined, in order to succeed.