A class action is where a single party, or perhaps a few parties, represents a larger group in a civil litigation. Usually a class action is brought by plaintiffs, but sometimes a group of defendants can be a class, too.
I think it is helpful to think of a class action as an exception to the general rule that parties litigate their own cases. That is, if John and Ted sue Mary, both John and Ted have to individually prove their cases against Mary. In the United States, sometimes many plaintiffs will sue many defendants but that is not a class action. Each party must prove his own case,
Class actions are different because one party – – the class representative – – represents members of a group. The other members of the group are mainly bystanders who wait and see what happens in the case litigated by their representatives.
Judges must approve class actions. In the federal courts there are several requirements before a judge will approve a class action. The judge must determine that there are too many members of the class for everyone to join together in one case, that the members of the group have at least one common issue of fact and law, and that the class representative will be a suitable representative. Depending on the type of class action there will be other requirements, too.
One type of class action, discussed in the video below, is where a class seeks money damages. Product liability cases are typical examples of such class actions. One or two parties will represent similar members of a group who purchased or used the allegedly defective product.
One important aspect of a class action is that if a judge approves a class action, members of the group have to affirmatively “opt out”. That is, an individual must affirmatively decide that he wants to litigate a case on his own behalf and does not want to be represented in the class action. Otherwise, he is part of the class and his success in the case will depend on the success of the representative.
For example, let’s say a company allegedly overcharged customers for one year. But most customers were only overcharged a few dollars. These customers might not want to litigate a case for a few dollars and will be happy to join a class and let the class representative and the class’s attorneys litigate the case for them. On the other hand, an individual who lost a lot of money might want to litigate the case himself if he thinks he will do better on his own.