Most people are probably familiar with the term “class action,” but fewer are well-versed on the term “mass tort.” A mass tort is similar to a class action, but the two differ in some important ways, and for individuals who may have legal cause to seek damages against another party, it’s important to understand the distinction between these two types of group lawsuits.
Remember, though, that each case is unique, and what applies to one potential plaintiff may not apply to another, and a qualified attorney may recommend you pursue a course of action different than what you intend.
Still, many mass tort cases in recent years have helped secure huge verdicts and settlements for plaintiffs, while others have met the qualifications for class action status.
Mass Tort vs. Class Action
Both class actions and mass torts deal with cases in which there are many plaintiffs, often numbering in the hundreds or even thousands. The chief difference between the two is in the size of the group of plaintiffs and how each case is treated.
But federal law, specifically the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, sets out several specific conditions that must be met for a lawsuit to be considered a class action: (Cornell Law School)
- The class is so numerous that joinder of all members is impracticable;
- There are questions of law or fact common to the class;
- The claims or defenses of the representative parties are typical of the claims or defenses of the class; and
- The representative parties will fairly and adequately protect the interests of the class.
As a result of these conditions, mass tort cases that do not proceed as class actions generally involve a smaller group of plaintiffs as well as plaintiffs whose specific situations have a great deal of variation. That’s one reason why cases of defective drugs or medical devices often advance as mass torts because every person’s biology is unique.
Another key difference is that in a mass tort, each plaintiff is still treated as an individual, while in a class action, the entire group of plaintiffs is represented by a single case. That means that in a mass tort, each case will proceed on its own merits and each plaintiff will have to make their individual case in court, though many mass torts are filed as multijurisdictional litigation, or MDLs. In such cases, these lawsuits are often heard by a single judge, who may make decisions that impact each individual claim.
On Dec. 10, 1966, the very first known product liability case over asbestos was filed in Texas. The defendants, including Owens Corning, prevailed, but before long, many other mesothelioma lawsuits after death and wrongful death mesothelioma lawsuits had been filed against the makers of products that contain asbestos. Today, asbestos litigation is one of the largest areas of all civil litigation, particularly in cases where people have been diagnosed with mesothelioma (see statute of limitations). In fact, these cases are so common that an asbestos trust fund was established to compensate victims of asbestos companies that have since gone bankrupt. Exposure to asbestos is estimated to cause at least 80% of mesothelioma cases.
Currently, thousands of roundup cancer lawsuits are ongoing against Bayer AG and Monsanto, the makers of the popular weedkiller Roundup, also known by its active ingredient, glyphosate. To date, these non hodgkins lymphoma cancer lawsuits have not been certified as a class action, and juries already have reached verdicts in three cases as part of multiple mass torts in separate MDLs across the country. Analysts have said the settlement value in these Roundup cases could be as high as $10 billion, and several trials are still underway with more cases moving through the courts. (Bloomberg)
Johnson & Johnson has faced several recent talcum powder ovarian cancer lawsuits over its talcum powder products, some of which have met class action requirements, while others have remained simple mass torts. The lawsuits claim that the company’s iconic baby powder and other talc-based products can cause ovarian cancer as well as mesothelioma. One case from the Johnson & Johnson mass tort that’s being heard in St. Louis saw a $4.7 billion verdict, and about 12,000 more cases are pending or ongoing as part of a huge MDL.
More than 20 years after a $200 billion-plus settlement was agreed to by the four largest tobacco companies — Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds, Brown & Williamson and Lorillard — mass tort tobacco litigation is still ongoing. Multiple class-action lawsuits have been filed against various tobacco companies in recent years focusing on so-called light cigarettes. Some of the cases have been dismissed, while others have proceeded or simply failed to achieve class action status, meaning plaintiffs must push their own individual cases.
When it was settled out of court in 1984, the class-action lawsuit filed by Vietnam veterans over Dow Chemical, Monsanto and Diamond Shamrock was the largest such settlement in U.S. history — $180 million. While that’s been surpassed (and then some), the case remains a landmark victory for consumers, though there remains controversy over the maximum amount each veteran injured by Agent Orange could receive and the impact on their ability to collect government benefits to which they were entitled.
Nearly 42 million vehicles with defective Takata airbags are currently under active recall in the United States because the airbags have been known to explode when deployed. Still more vehicles are expected to be added to the recall list, which eventually will number 70 million, according to the National Highway Safety Traffic Administration. At least 23 people have died and many others have been seriously injured by the flying shrapnel the defective airbags can send shooting toward their bodies. Class actions, defective airbag lawsuits and other MDLs have been filed against Takata, the company that manufactured the airbags, as well as automakers like General Motors, Volkswagen, Daimler, Honda and many others.
Hinkley Water Contamination
In the class-action lawsuit made famous by the film “Erin Brockovich,” Pacfic Gas & Electric settled a lawsuit over its contamination of the groundwater in and around Hinkley, California, about 120 miles north of Los Angeles. PG&E settled the class-action lawsuit for $333 million in 1996, but the contamination was apparently not contained, and in 2013 another class action was filed by Hinkley residents not involved in the first settlement, with plaintiffs alleging PG&E destroyed the value of their homes.
A defective product. Corporate malfeasance. Negligent quality controls. When a company harms a person, it’s almost never just one person. Thousands of people are harmed every year by corporate products and practices, and there’s strength in numbers. If you or a loved one have been injured by a defective or harmful product, it may be in your best interest to seek a consultation with an attorney qualified in handling complex mass tort cases.